Once a Witch: Avoids most YA tropes

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsCarolyn MacCullough 1. Once a Witch 2. Always a WitchOnce a Witch by Carolyn MacCullough

Tamsin comes from a family of witches. At her birth, her grandmother prophesied that she would become one of the most powerful of all — but Tamsin’s powers have never manifested, making her odd one out in the clan. If this were Harry Potter, she’d be a Squib.

Unsurprisingly, Tamsin is insecure about her magical deficiency. When a stranger comes to the family’s shop, looking for someone to help him find a lost item, Tamsin’s insecurity leads her to make a fateful mistake. Now she’s the only one who can put things right. The good news is, she may not be as powerless as she thought…

A lot of YA paranormal novels get bogged down in angst and mundane scenes, but Once a Witch is not one of them. The plot hits the ground running, moves quickly, and builds up suspense as it goes. One of my favorite details is the way Carolyn MacCullough uses the word “hellcrater” to ratchet up the tension. Tamsin has her phone set up so that it displays “HELLCRATER” when she gets a call from home, and at first this is a cute joke. By the time the climax arrives, every call from home bears frightening news, and seeing “HELLCRATER” on the page sends your heart into your throat.

There’s a romantic subplot, and it’s a refreshing one. This is not the kind of romance where the girl and boy gaze at each other once and it’s instant true love. They knew each other long ago, meet again, and then build up a relationship through talk and shared experiences.

Once a Witch has a time-travel twist, and I’m not sure it quite works; I think there’s a closed-loop paradox in it. Also, the plot occasionally moves a little too fast, whooshing through scenes I’d love to have seen in more detail, particularly the Samhain scene at the end. It’s especially a bummer because MacCullough writes ritual so beautifully.

These few quibbles aside, Once a Witch is an enjoyable novel that’s both suspenseful and charming, and avoids a lot of the tropes that have become annoying in YA. Book two, Always a Witch, is calling my name.


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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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