The story opens by introducing us to Rona Blackburn, a powerful witch who comes to Anathema island shortly after the island’s founders established themselves. Frightened by the island’s witch, the eight founding father attempt to kill Rona but are unsuccessful. Enraged by the islander’s deception, Rona places a curse upon all their descendants as well as her own.
So then we fast forward to the present day and follow 16 year old Nor Blackburn, Rona’s most recent descendant. Nor tries to keep her ever-growing magical abilities under wraps and life as normal a life as possible.
But the thing with Nor, is that she’s not like any of the other Blackburn witches before her. Up until now, each Blackburn witch had only one supernatural power with they refer to as “Burdens”. For example, her grandmother Judd has the ability to heal.
Nor’s powers, however, seem to be expanding and she’s discovering new abilities all the time. She’s afraid that others may react the way the founding fathers did toward her ancestor Rona — suspect Nor of dipping in Black Magic. Nor keeps her secret to herself, not even confiding in her Grandmother, who’s raised her.
In addition, Nor is dealing with severe emotional trauma suffered at the hands of her powerful and sociopath mother Fern. Though her mother abandoned her when Nor was only a child, the trauma remains and Nor copes by engaging in self-cutting, which I will admit, was difficult to read about.
So then a book surfaces at the Wiccan shop where Nor works entitled “The Price Guide to the Occult” which promises to cast any spell at all for the right price written and authored by none only than Vern Blackburn, Nor’s evil mother.
Moreover, the book divulges actual authentic spells from the Blackburn family. It becomes increasingly obvious to Nor’s family that the book’s success is due to dark, evil magic for which there is always a terrible price.
So the book’s publication sets in motion events tied to black magic and Nor senses that evil connected to that magic is headed straight for the island and has little doubt that this evil will be in the form of her mother.
But the question, is whether Nor’s magical abilities are enough to stop her wicked, murderous mother.
WHAT I LIKED
First off, what a beautiful book! The embossed writing on the hardcover book itself — there is no dust jacket — and the red-edge pages are gorgeous.
As for the story, the author did an excellent job at bringing to life the setting of the small town on Anathema island where we have places such the Sweet & Savory bakery and the Witching Hour Wiccan shop. And we must not forget the creepy cemetery tours as well as the plethora of the animals and plant life that the author describes.
There was really a rich sense of place in the story and it was quite atmospheric, which made the island all the more magical for me. I felt like I was right there along with all the characters.
I found the story itself to be gripping and compelling, though it ended up being a little darker than I had anticipated. I especially enjoyed the backstory of the Blackburn women, which I found fascinating. I would have actually love to know more detail about each of Rona’s descendants.
Nor’s character, while tough to read about at times, was especially multi-layered as she struggled not only with her ever-growing magical powers and the curse placed upon the Blackburn women by her ancestor, but she also had to contend with inner turmoil from being abused and then abandoned by a heartless mother.
There was also her constant struggle not to cut herself as she did in the past. It was heartbreaking to read at times as her urge for self-harm almost overwhelmed her but in a testament to the strength and courage of her character, she was able to overcome those urges, knowing that cutting herself is not the way to deal with her problems. So in this way, she was a character who had to fight not only inner demons and external monsters as well.
I loved all the fresh, complex and original secondary characters in the novel: grandmother Judd and her wife Apothia, Madge, Nor’s best friend Savvy, the enigmatic Gage, her crush, Reed and all the unique island folks.
The author did an excellent job of bringing them all to life, and they jumped off the page for me while I was reading the story. I enjoyed reading about their histories and their life on the island and appreciated how each character introduced was important to the unfolding of the story.
Vern’s character, however, was terrifying and chilling. She was the ultimate villain: vicious, heartless, clever and clearly insane with no remorse. Once Vern appears, the story definitely takes a darker turn as she causes some pretty horrifying, gruesome deaths.
The story also had an intriguing magic system, and I liked the idea that each Blackburn woman possessed only one witchy ability which they called Burdens, and any of them who manifests magic outside of her Burden is engaging in Black Magic, which of course, is a huge no-no. The magic as described in the book is vivid and distinctive — the unique descriptions of Judd healing others and the hand pain she experienced in doing so seemed so life-like that I could almost feel her pain as I read along.
In fact, I found all the magical descriptions equally fascinating. One Blackburn witch had the ability to manipulate minds while another to ease the transition to death. Nor’s first Burden was at the ability to hear the thoughts of plants and animals which I found an especially interesting ability.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE
While I did enjoy aspects of Vern’s character, I felt that she was a little over the top. She’s kind of what I refer to as a “Snidely Whiplash villain” in which there are no redeeming qualities whatsoever.
She said herself once during the book that she didn’t need money as she could conjure whatever she wanted. So I was a bit unclear as to the purpose of her publishing the book — to allow readers to obtain whatever they desired.
I didn’t really get the motivation for Vern to become a famous author and make scads of money if money wasn’t what she was after. I always like my villains to have a strong reason for what they do — not just be evil for the sake of being evil. So in this way, Vern was a bit one dimensional as there was no real motivation behind her actions.
Though I felt that the author did an excellent job with most of the characters, I also felt the Reed, Nor’s love interest, was a little bland and could also have used a bit more development.
Additionally, I was confused as to why Nor didn’t confide in her grandmother about her extra abilities. The reasoning why she hid her powers from her family was unclear to me, especially when she could have been assisting Judd all along with healing the people in the community. Likewise, Judd may have been able to help Nor understand and control her new abilities.
The ending felt a little bit unsatisfying for me. Well, it wasn’t the ending actually; it was the epilogue. Though the plot does completely wrap up at the end — that is to say, it doesn’t end on a cliffhanger — the resulting situation for our main characters as put forth in the epilogue was not all that desirable.
There wasn’t really a “happily ever after” here, as our characters are under heavy suspicion, scrutiny and perhaps even danger by society as the book’s end. The epilogue could pave the way for a sequel I suppose, but overall, I wasn’t a fan.
Overall, this was an enjoyable story with an engaging storyline and rich, interesting characters. It was a tad slow-paced at first but really picked up steam toward the last quarter of the book.
That being said, I still found it an enchanting story, and the writing was evocative and lyrical with rich, lush prose that was at times haunting.
Be warned, however, that the book does explore some dark themes such as parental abandonment, self-harm, and abuse which may be triggers for some people.
Though it was darker then I had initially expected, I felt that Walton has crafted a wonderfully spooky story with a great deal of atmosphere and a thrilling sequence of events leading to an explosive climax. This is a well-told tale riveting tale with an intriguing magic system, and I’m glad I read it. I give it 4 stars.