Young Adult Fantasy with a Touch of Angst for All Your Binge Reading Needs
Every once in awhile a good binge reading session is in order. I sat down recently and read Leslye Walton's The Price Guide to the Occult in one day! At a sparse 288 pages, this atmospheric young adult novel held my attention on a balmy California winter day.
*Please note: This novel addresses abuse and self-harm issues. Be kind to yourself if you need to skip this post.*
Following Walton's debut novel, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, this novel was different than I expected it to be. In fact, I'm not entirely sure what I was expecting but I was pleasantly surprise despite a slightly lower rating on Goodreads.
After an intriguing historical prologue about the protagonist's ancestor, Rona Blackburn, the story quickly creates a sleepy modern day fictional Pacific Northwest island, Anathema Island, with a community of hippies and sustainable homesteads. Nor Blackburn only wants to live an ordinary life and pass unnoticed through the world. As the 9th decedent of a witch, and a cursed magical family, Nor attempts to suppress her magical abilities. Besides her abilities, Nor deals with things that many teenagers deal with: first love, parental abandonment, and self-harm. Nor is comfortable with hum-drum life on the island until her vindictive and manipulative mother, Fern, reappears as a cultic miracle worker. Fern Blacburn sells her magic via The Price Guide to the Occult and amasses fervent followers. The story slowly builds a foreboding tone and at the climax of the book Nor confronts her viciously charismatic mother.
Reading a few Goodreads reviews, I thought this book was going to be a fantasy romance à la Caraval (which I was not a fan of). And while there is a budding romance with a local boy, Reed, I personally didn't think it overpowered the story. There's a hint of a love triangle; however, it wasn't developed so I'm not mad at it. A few things that did irk me were: every character seemed to have to have an unusual name, the island is almost fantastically diverse for a smallish Pacific Northwest town but the main character is white and heterosexual, and we never really learn about why Fern is so evil.
While Nor is almost a stereotypical angst-ridden teenager, I appreciated that Walton attempts to explain why by describing Nor's abusive childhood with Fern and intimating Nor's fear that she's like her mother. I have not read many books that feature self-harm and I appreciated how Walton dealt with it. In my opinion she didn't glorify it and she didn't gloss over it. Rather it was a part of the story and we see Nor struggle with the urge to harm herself after difficult parts of the book. Since I haven't dealt with this mental health issue in my own life I can't presume to know if this is portrayed accurately but it seems from the writing and the author's acknowledgements she researched it and provided resources for anyone dealing with thoughts and/or actions of self-harm.
I found Fern Blackburn to be completely abhorrent. I loved how Fern is portrayed as an insidious charismatic leader. If an evil witch was going to sell spells and do speaker circuits I would think they would behave just like Fern. I actually chuckled that Fern's book exploded in popularity after a YouTuber vouched for it. As a blogger and consumer of Instagram and YouTube it honestly added a touch of authenticity to me, thinking "yep, that would totally happen" (lol). Despite, Fern being a great villain she did feel a bit flat because I could quite wrap my head around why she was evil or what caused her to be so vicious.
The first half of the book is a tad slow but the pace quickly picks up during the second half. Additionally, the epilogue leaves room for a sequel so we'll see if that manifests! The conclusion of the action clearly leads to ominous consequences that leave you with a cliffhanger. I would definitely continue reading this series if more books are announced.