In the Blackburn family of witches, Nor, the novel’s teenage protagonist, is the first in seven generations to possess the full panoply of powers, which unfold and strengthen throughout the narrative. She lives on an island peopled by deftly created eccentrics with a caring and protective ‘mountainous…giantess’ of a grandmother and her loving partner. Nor’s mother Fern abused, neglected and abandoned her. Their relationship and differing personalities, as manifested in the exercise of their craft, forms the crux of the story.
The sensational publication of Fern’s book of spells, too intricate for her to cast without the sadistic exploitation of others, brings her immense wealth and universal fame. Her subsequent return home is heralded by the seeming death of the island’s flora and the disappearance of its wildlife. Nature’s further display of outrage at the event takes the form of the dramatic and threatening inclemency of the weather. It is on this platform that mother and daughter play out the age-old battle between good and evil.
The depiction of this super-natural contest loses some of its potential impact and intensity by being over reliant on the cliched grisly and macabre images and situations redolent of the less celebrated work of the horror genre. Eminently more successful is the treatment of teenage relationships and adolescent maturation, the latter finding its strongest representation in Nor’s graduation from being a girl ‘devoted to anonymity,’ to becoming a self-confident young woman ready to embrace her destiny with its inherent sacrifices and possibilities.