“Any decent human being, witch or otherwise, has the capacity to do good in this world. It’s merely a case of whether one chooses to do so.”
TITLE & AUTHOR: The Price Guide to the Occult by Leslye Walton
GENRE: YA/Fantasy/Magical Realism/Paranormal
PUBLISHED: March 13th 2018, by Candlewick Press
MY RATING: 4/5
Yet another typical YA fantasy?
Okay guys, first I have to admit something. I’m kind of prejudiced. This is a YA novel, and I expected what I’d read in almost every other YA so far: tropes, cliches, that feeling you’re reading a book well below your age group (if you’re 27 like me). It surprised me to find almost none of that in the better part of The Price Guide to the Occult, which then made me struggle between my expectations of this novel, and what this novel actually turned out to be. Mixed reviews didn’t help either, as before I started reading this, I got the impression that people either loved or hated this book. But then again, the ones who rated The Price Guide to the Occult poorly have compared it to Walton’s previous novel, which I haven’t read yet.
I’ve buddy read this with the amazing Cat @ CatFairy Reads, whom I’m eternally grateful to for being either a slow reader as me, or for drowning in ARCs as – also me. Throughout the whole novel we managed to keep an even pace and an even admiration of this amazing book. We both got the instant Practical Magic vibe, increased by the fact there’s a spell/quote at the start of each chapter. We both loved the main character, both hated the villain. I look forward to her review as well.
The Price Guide to the Occult starts by recounting the history of the Anathema Island, where eight settlers arrived in 1843, peacefully living and preparing the island for the expected arrival of their wives and children. This peace is threatened when a woman arrives and builds herself a house on the other side of the island, as it soon turns out that the woman, Rona Blackburn, is a witch. The settlers are determined to drive her away, but one of these men soon falls under Rona’s spell — he spends three consecutive nights with her and then runs away ashamed, like woken from a dream — leaving Rona not alone, but with a child. Events further spiral into what will be known forever as the Blackburn curse. Each of the Blackburn daughters will fall for one of the settlers’ descendants; each will spend three nights with him; each will end up with a child; and each one will be born with one magical gift – a burden.
Eight daughters later, Nor Blackburn is a 16 yo girl coping with her mother’s abandon by self-harm and by trying to be invisible to anyone but her best friend Savvy. She lives with the sixth Blackburn daughter – her grandma Judd, who possesses the burden of healing, and Judd’s lover Apothia. The island of Anathema is totally quirky, like something you’d build in a dream. There are places and shops named: the Witching hour, the Sweet and Savory Bakery, Society of the Protection of Discarded Things; a dog named Bijou and a cat called Kikimora; weird names like Madge, Sena, Wintersweet and Fern.
Fern. The seventh Blackburn daughter and Nor’s mother, born with a frightening burden of controlling people’s thoughts. Nor carries an awful memory of her mother which she tries to erase with knives and scissors, but one day it all comes back in the form of a book, authored by Fern Blackburn. The Price Guide to the Occult quickly becomes a bestseller, offering various helpful and terrifying spells for a small cost. But all of these spells fall outside of Fern’s original burden, and as Nor knows very well, the price for such magic — black magic — is not paid in money, but in blood.
As we all know, I love witches, so this one was hard to resist, not to mention the fact I was attracted by the gorgeous cover. As I mentioned earlier, the reviews for this novel were mixed, but my initial doubts started to dissipate right on page 1. Leslye Walton’s writing style is imaginative and beautiful, previously proven by The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, which I plan to read as soon as possible. The most interesting part, for me, was the first bit about the history of Anathema Island, and if you ask me – I wouldn’t mind if Walton stopped right there and instead turned this novel into one centered around the lives of all the Blackburn women through the centuries.
Instead, we are shifted to modern times where we follow a teen protagonist who is well written, but because of the numerous cast of side characters, none is as developed as her. I wanted to know more about the other daughters and their powers, but they are mentioned in passing only. Out of the three women we do get to know a bit — grandma Judd, daughter Fern, and the granddaughter Nor — Judd was the most interesting, while Fern was the least. In the last 30% of the novel, the quality started to drop down and some ugly tropes either emerged or tried to.
The most significant would be Fern, with her insatiable blood lust as her only drive. A classic b&w villain with absolutely no remorse or redeeming qualities; with unusual powers that remain unexplained; meeting an end that was just too easy. I like my villains written well, so I wasn’t satisfied with Fern. On the other side, Nor was thrown into a classic fight of good an evil; she becomes a typical damaged heroine; she almost gets involved into a love triangle. All this in the last 30%, like the author was in a rush to finish, or just ran out of ideas. The epilogue leaves an opening for a series, but with a totally different direction and theme, and I would love to read it if it ever comes to life, though I would also love if the author was a bit more consistent.
Overall, I really enjoyed the first 70%, even though the pace is slow, and I loved the original idea and the various powers, Nor’s being the most interesting as she can hear the thoughts of animals and plants, but I would’ve preferred if the author kept the original pace, and if she avoided the cliches completely. I was struggling between a 3.5 and 4 rating, but the latter won as I immensely enjoyed the better part of the novel.