I’m a sucker for a fake-dating trope. Someone is pretending to be someone’s fake girlfriend for reasons? Yes, please.
In ‘This Spells Disaster,’ a new queer romantic-comedy novel by Tori Anne Martin, a skilled but self-doubting witch is afraid her pretend love interest is for-real interested in her because of a mix-up: a simple relaxation potion being swapped for a calamitous (and illegal) love potion.
To boot, this love story has New England charm to spare. The novel unfolds in coastal Maine and an artsy, folksy festival in Western Massachusetts. It’s a charming tale to escape to: a light-hearted and uplifting romp populated by a cozy, gossipy but well-meaning coven (think curious elder witches and grandmas who just know things) in a warm, spell-filled world, complete with a self-care shop and enchanted drinks that taste like fall.
With classic rom-com hijinx and herbalist witchy vibes, this novel will have you happily spellbound — and rooting for the heroines, Rory and Morgan, to finally admit their “fake” love is very much real.
But the book also deals with big issues thoughtfully. There’s a smart examination of the paralyzing burden of others’ expectations and perceptions around success. Meanwhile, the love potion narrative makes for a thoughtful thread around consent and power dynamics, an exploration that is enriched by the fact that Martin has a doctorate in psychology.
Martin writes fantasy and romance novels from her home in southern New Hampshire, under a variety of pen names. We caught up with her over a Zoom call in advance of the Tuesday, Sept. 12, launch of “This Spells Disaster.”
Q. I loved being immersed in this world — the festival and competition were a lovely place to spend time. The New England setting was so strongly felt throughout.
A. I wanted to set it in a cute, kind of coastal Maine town. I was thinking primarily Portsmouth, New Hampshire, with a little bit of Freeport, Maine, mixed in. For the festival, I had an amalgam in my head of renaissance fairs and arts and music festivals, where people go camping and there’s artists and creators.
Q. You’ve written in multiple genres: fantasy, contemporary romance. Was this book a natural next step?
A. Yes. I started off writing in fantasy, and then I switched to contemporary romance. And a year ago, when witch romances started becoming a big thing, I really wanted to jump into that space. It was a chance to combine the two.
Q. How does your training in psychology play in with your novel writing?
A. I like to think that that kind of background helps when I’m thinking through character development and story ideas. It helps and informs how I think about things — the love-potion aspect here being the most obvious example.
Q. Right. It felt like it showed up in the discussion around consent woven through the book.
A. In a lot of fantasy books, love potions come up, and they’re always kind of played as a joke. But because of my background — I did my doctoral research on consent and sexual assault — to me it jumped out that this could be used in an awful way.
Q. How did you find your way into these characters? They had such great chemistry — it was a lot of fun to see them both challenge and strengthen one another.
A. I had this character dynamic in my head: the quiet, taciturn person with the more outgoing, scatterbrained kind of character. It was definitely the characters that started the whole thing.
Q. I liked how Rory was working at the bar, The Empty Chalice, and wrestling so deeply with the pressure of expectations for her.
A. I had a friend who was going through something similar. She was evaluating all of this pressure being put on her by people about her writing, and how that was impacting her mental health. It got me thinking, what happens when you reach that stage? Where it’s not even like the people who are yelling negative things at you, but it’s the pressure trying to live up to these imaginary expectations. How do you deal with that?
Q. Her struggle was a nice contrast with Morgan, who was trying to find herself and her confidence, but who was also very comfortable with herself in different ways that Rory wasn’t.
A. Morgan was much more fully formed in my head. A lot of her characteristics are based on someone I’m close to, pieces of her personality.
Q. It made me think of all of the comparing we do in general, on social media. Diminishing whatever we’re creating by saying, ‘Well, someone else is doing something better.’
A. We’re always very hard on ourselves.
Q. What are you hoping that a reader of this novel would take away?
A. I want someone to feel like they’ve had an escape. I first started reading romance when I was going through some health issues. And for me it was such an amazing escape — like, okay, I get this guaranteed “happily ever after.” I can kind of forget my own worries and problems for a time.
Q. It felt like that, to me, while I was reading.
A. Good. When I’m writing, that’s always what I want someone to be able to walk away with: that, for a little while, you didn’t have to exist in your head. You got to exist in someone else’s, and they have a happy story to tide you over. A little light in whatever darkness you’re going through. That’s what I try to do. Or hope I do.
Q. When I was young I didn’t appreciate how valuable romance can be — how powerful it can be to read something that is an escape, and is uplifting. Just to enjoy a beautiful story. As I’ve gotten older, my perspective has changed a lot.
A. I’m the same way. When I was younger I said, “Oh, I want to read darker stories. I don’t need fluffy.” And then you reach a point where you’re like, I do need “fluff.” Then you learn that trying to write “fluff” is actually really difficult. Especially when the world is on fire, or feels that it might literally be on fire. I think that makes it even more important.
Interview was edited and condensed.
Tuesday, Sept 12, 7 p.m., “This Spells Disaster” Book Launch, Water Street Bookstore, 125 Water St., Exeter, N.H. waterstreetbooks.com