The Blurb On The Back:
All Nor Blackburn wants is to live an unremarkable teenage life. But as a descendant of the witch Rona Blackburn, who famously cursed her family over a century ago, Nor is no stranger to suffering. She has reason to hope, however, that she may have escaped the thornier side effects of Rona’s curse.
Then a mysterious book comes out, promising to cast any spell for the right price. The author – Nor’s own mother – is performing magic that should be far beyond her capabilities. And such magic always requires a sacrifice.
A storm is coming. It’s coming for Nor.
You can order The Price Guide To The Occult by Leslye Walton from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK. I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.
The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
16-year-old Nor Blackburn lives with her grandmother, Judd and her grandmother’s partner Apothia on Anathema Island, part of an archipelago off the coast of Washington State in the USA. Nor and Judd are descendants of Rona Blackburn, a notorious and powerful witch who lived in the 19th century and who cursed both her bloodline and the bloodlines of the 8 founding fathers of the island (the so-called Original Eight) who burned down her house and tried to drive her from the island after she slept with Sebastian Farce (one of her number) and became pregnant with his daughter.
As a result of the curse, each of Rona’s descendants are all female. At the age of 11 they inherit one of Rona’s magical abilities (Nor can understand what animals and plants are saying and thinking, Judd can heal other people of their pain). At the age of 19 they and a male descendant of the Original Eight become sexually infatuated with each other for a period of 3 days, after which the Blackburn descendant becomes pregnant with another girl and the male descendant of the Original Eight returns to his life, never to interact with her again.
Nor’s lived with her grandmother ever since her mother, Fern, (a cruel, vicious woman who had the ability to manipulate the minds and will of other people) left the island when Nor was 9-years-old. Nor was scared of her mother and the way she used black magic to try and increase her powers – black magic that involved hurting Nor. As a result, Nor’s insecurities and fear led to her self-harming and she largely tries to keep a low profile on the island, her only friend the lively and confident Savvy.
But one day, while working at a magic and healing shop owned and run by Madge, a former follower of her mother’s, the store receives a new book THE PRICE GUIDE TO THE OCCULT. The book is literally a catalogue of various spells that the author – Fern – promises to cast for the reader in return for the quoted price and it isn’t long before the book is a runaway success as social media influencers, celebrities and politicians begin courting Fern who becomes a celebrity in her own right. Fern’s success and the public’s interest in her background brings tourists to the island but Nor and Judd know that there’s no way Fern can be performing these spells without accessing the darkest of black magic and Nor knows all too well that casting the blackest of spells requires a family sacrifice …
Leslye Walton’s YA fantasy novel has some great ideas and vivid and bleak imagery but the plot is filled with holes while characterisation beyond Nor is essentially non-existent. Although self-harm forms a major theme in the book, I didn’t buy into Nor’s psychological state and the inevitable YA love triangle between Nor, Reed and Gage is half-hearted and fails to sizzle. The book ends with the set-up for a sequel but I’m not sure I’d read on.
There are some really good ideas at play within this book and for the first third, Walton does a good job of keeping the reader guessing as to where she’s going to take them. I particularly liked the idea of a line of cursed women who describe their magical gifts as a Burden and whose fates are inextricably tied with the lines of the men who wronged their ancestor. Walton has a beautiful, dreamy way with description and the scenes where she shows Judd removing pain from other people and Nor casually reaching out to understand what the animals and plants are thinking are all well done and evocative. Equally well done is the way that as Fern’s power and influence extends, those who have used the Guide or who are following her get fern tattoos, which begin to take on life and powers of their own in a way that’s really creepy and sinister. I believed in Nor’s half-dread of her 19th birthday and hope that by trying to fly under the radar of the boys on the island, the curse will not kick in and her attitude towards love forms a neat contrast with the more spirited and idealistic Savvy. I also believed in her fear of her mother – the scene where Walton reveals just what her mother did to her is genuinely horrifying and revolting.
However it’s only as the book goes on that you begin to see the holes in the story. For example, everyone in the Blackburn line has one Burden yet Nor begins to reveal that she actually has several of Rona’s powers but these only become apparent when Nor conveniently needs them and there’s zero explanation as to how this has come about. Similarly, we’re told that Fern can mentally manipulate anyone around her but this clearly isn’t the case with Judd, Nor or even Apothia and yet there is zero explanation for why this should be (in contrast to the fact that Walton makes clear that the Blackburn Curse is the reason why she can’t make Quinn Sweeney stay with her after their 3 days are up until she engages in black magic). We also learn late on that one of the Blackburn daughters had a mental development issue that meant that she was always very childlike and whose Burden was such that it led someone to murder her – yet we’re not told whether this was before or after her 19th birthday and if it was after, then there is zero consideration of the ramifications of that.
The biggest issue with the book though revolves around Fern who is under-developed within this book to the point that describing her as two-dimensional feels like an unwarranted compliment. She’s basically bad and evil because she wants to be. It’s not clear whether she was always that way and there’s no conversation between Nor and Judd as to what Fern was like as a child to indicate that she was ever any different or even whether Judd feels any guilt at not doing more to steer her away from the path she’s taken. It’s also not particularly clear what she wants other than power or why she bothered to launch the book given that she seems purely focused on getting Nor and using her to boost her own power. Certainly, her final battle with Nor indicates that she’s not particularly bright given how she fails to react or anticipate some fairly obvious problems with her plan. It all ultimately feels a little hollow and pointless and for all her cackling and claims to be some kind of all-powerful Hecate, the resolution of her storyline is never in doubt.
The supporting characters are also under-developed. Reed is little more than the designated love interest (a basic beige nice guy) while Gage is the mouthy, snide and unpleasant boy whose family turns out to be some kind of protector to Nor’s (another underdeveloped plot strand that lands without warning and doesn’t really convince). Given that this is YA, it seems pretty obvious who the romance is skewered towards and the lack of sizzle that Nor has with either character made it difficult for me to care about it (although admittedly, I’m not a fan of YA romance generally). Savvy has more personality to her but I got bored with her ever-changing hair colour and a lot of her personality exists as a plot prod to push Nor where Walton needs her to go.
I’ve mentioned above how Nor conveniently hides the full extent of her powers until she needs to use one so you never know what she can or cannot do (and it’s doubly frustrating because even when it all comes out into the open, you don’t get a definitive guide to what – if any – her limits are). Also irritating is that it really wasn’t clear to me why she self-harmed. To be fair, Walton does deal with the urge to self-harm in a believable way and I did buy into the tug that Nor felt to do it when under stress but the initial spark for it is missing (it seems to be tied into the black magic that Fern tried to perform using her but it’s not clear why Nor would try to recreate it). I was also a little bothered by the suggested message that Nor’s self-harm has taken away her fear of blood and pain, which I’m not sure is something readers should be taking away from this.
Ordinarily, all of the negatives would make me put this book down in the ‘not for me’ category but Walton does save it at the very end with a really interesting epilogue. I won’t reveal spoilers, but I liked the way it addresses the consequences of what’s happened in the preceding pages and both the government’s and Judd’s response is actually pretty credible. I especially liked the suggestion that the Burdens could become both something to be used and something to be suppressed. It’s only because the set-up here is so interesting that I could be persuaded to read any sequel to this book but I’d need a lot better characterisation and tighter plotting and world building before I made that commitment.
Thanks to Walker Books for the review copy of this book.