When her mother is executed for witchcraft, Elizabeth Anne Hawksmith has only one way to save herself from the same fate. She must succumb to the will of Gideon Masters, the Warlock, who will instruct her in the magic arts and bring her immortality. But of course there is a price to pay, and Gideon pursues her across the centuries to claim that payment. We follow Elizabeth from 17th century rural England to Victorian London, from the battlefields of WWI to the present day and her final encounter with her enemy.
This is a fast-paced and engrossing tale, and Paula Brackston has undoubted literary talent. She keeps a tight hold on the narrative and ties all the different episodes in together with a deft touch. I kept turning the pages and found myself engrossed in the story. Certainly a book group would find plenty to discuss here, with the themes of witchcraft and healing, war and medicine.
However, I do have a couple of criticisms. For a start the book needs the attention of a good editor (a perennial gripe of mine - where are all the good editors?) There are some infelicitous expressions - viridian grasses, fescued fields. Someone in the 17th century section is called a "lech" - which is surely an anachronism - and later on p329 someone in described as having the audacity "to letch". On both occasions the word jars - as well as being spelled inconsistently. The otherwise fluent writing now and again descends into cliché, particularly in the war episodes, the part of the book where Paula Brackston seems least comfortable.
But these are minor quibbles compared to the main one, which is the magic in the book. Now obviously this is a fantastical tale and in order to enjoy it we have to suspend our disbelief. And most of the time that is easy enough to do. The narrative is compelling enough for that. But every so often the author's imagination seems to run away with her. There is no need for the monstrous creatures that turn up on a couple of occasions and most certainly not for the troupe of sparkly fairies who lend a farcical element to an otherwise important scene. The book deals relatively realistically with witchcraft and just doesn't need these rather silly additions. And I'm quite sure anyone truly interested or involved in Wicca wouldn't be too impressed.
Nevertheless, on the whole I found it an enjoyable book, and for a first novel has much to recommend it.The Book of Shadows