“Book of Shadows” Paula Brackston

Another book I got out of the library after reading an excerpt on tor.com. Well, I read an excerpt of the sequel and remembered I’d been intrigued by the first one when I’d read that excerpt, and finally found out it had a different title in the UK.

The story is the story of Elizabeth Anne Hawksmith, born in the early 17th Century and still living in 2007 – told partly through her journal, and partly via three long flashbacks to significant events in her long life. She’s a witch – a real one, with real ability to do magic – who has lived her long life in fear of being found by the man (Gideon) who trained her. The magic system is the sort of traditional witchcraft from both 17th century & modern ideas of witchcraft – herbwives, healing, pacts with devilish beings, black witches & white ones, fires on Beltane, the Summerlands etc. That sounds dismissive, but actually I think it’s one of the strengths of the book – it’s not explained in detail, it just is and its recognisability makes it feel more real than some meticulously detailed explanation would.

In 2007 Elizabeth has just moved to a new home, and starts befriending a local teenager almost despite herself. She tells this teenager (Tegan) some of the story of her life – including how she came to be a witch in plague-stricken, witch-fearing 1627. The next interlude is Gideon catching up with her in 1888, and then we have the last time she loved someone (in the midst of the First World War). She’s hoping, initially, that she’s finally free of Gideon – but you can sense the inevitable results of letting her guard down right from the start of the book. However that doesn’t make it predictable – I didn’t guess what the ending was going to be until it happened, but once it did it felt right and a better end than the predictable thing I thought was coming.

It was a book I enjoyed reading, and I always wanted to know what happened next. But that’s not to say it’s without its flaws. In retrospect it feels like a lot happened off-screen that was actually rather important to the story – and then suddenly it’s revealed in the last few pages, and in some ways undermines the characterisation of Elizabeth that we’ve had up to that point. Also – Tegan was mostly a cipher, which didn’t help overcome the constant reminders of Doctor Who from her name (although the character was more Ace than Tegan in so far as she was developed). And Gideon felt a bit cartoonishly bad.

As far as I can tell this is Brackston’s first book (her webpage only mentions this (calling it “The Witch’s Daughter”, which is the title in the US) and the next one, “The Winter Witch”) – I’m not blown away by it, but I shall keep an eye out for more from her in future.