People often repeat the truncated quote “blood is thicker than water,” forgetting that the full quote is “the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.” Impressively, both of these mutually contradictory statements are true of The Price Guide to the Occult by Leslye Walton. Family, its pull, and its limits are the central to the story of Nor, eighth daughter of a cursed lineage of witches. All Nor wants is to make it through life with as little trouble with possible, but her inheritance cannot be denied.
Father to son, mother to daughter, blood carries both blessings and curses—or Burdens and curses, in fact. Each daughter of the Blackburn family has only one gift, called a Burden because of its double-edged nature, and no further access to the magic of their witchy line. This wasn’t always the case, though. Their ancestress, Rona Blackburn, accidentally doomed her own line in a fit of vengeance for a romantic betrayal. Fern would have no problem with this limited magic—or no magic at all—but her mother, Fern, is insatiable for power, magical or otherwise. Fern left the island in pursuit of power, abandoning Nor, but Nor can’t get entirely comfortable with her absence. After all, she’s beginning to cast a very long shadow. Not only do Fern’s former lovers and colleagues keep her memory alive, but now Fern has a book out, a price guide that offers to do magic for anyone willing to pay. Any kind of magic. But Nor knows that there’s no magic without a price. And the price is paid in blood and pain.
But it’s the limits of blood—familial relationships or magic—that also concern Walton. Nor may share the genetic inheritance of the island’s original male inhabitants, but no father has ever claimed a Blackburn daughter or been an actual dad. The Blackburn matriarchs have a better track record, but Fern bucks the trend by being even worse than absent. Her presence is at best neglectful and at worst actively harmful to her poor daughter Nor.
Nor grows up with a profoundly unstable family made all the more volatile by magic. She is the victim of violence, and to erase her victimhood she inflicts more violence on herself on purpose. Self-harm is her form of control and release, but she has to overcome her instinct to cut if she wants to also move past the trauma of her power.
Walton has a deft and understanding touch when dealing with the topic of self-harm. She has done well by her research and created a respectful take on the disorder with Nor, who is in recovery thanks to therapy (and thankfully not magical intervention) but still struggling. Her family is understanding and supportive, as is her friend, the charmingly pixieish Savvy. It is Savvy who pulls her out of her shell when her grandmother cannot, and Savvy who saves her spirit as much as Judd saves her body.
It takes a lot of effort and a long time, though. Nor’s refusal to tell anyone that she has more powers than the single Burden, and especially her refusal to warn anyone about Fern’s approach, goes from seeming overcautious to seeming a bit ludicrous. Even if she has learned nothing from her family’s support, surely her friends’ devotion should have made some greater impression? She stays away from the excessively perfect Reed in a misguided attempt to protect him, but if she cares so much about protecting people, why doesn’t she speak up? Things go very bad very quickly—and then stay that way. She could help, but instead she dithers and hides. I’m not going to say it’s irrational, since her mother is an abusive monster, but I’m also not going to excuse it. This hesitance serves the plot far more than the characters.
And on the subject of her mother, Fern is a bit too one-dimensional of a monster for me. She’s clearly a psychopath, incapable of empathy and profoundly self-interested. Well, all right, sometimes evil is banal. But none of the other characters express curiosity about the origins and development of a girl who grew up just like the rest of them, on an obscure little island. I especially wish we’d heard more from Judd, who remains a benevolent enigma in the family home, healing those who come to her at the cost of her own pain. Does she heal to compensate? Does she fear her own daughter? Does she understand more about Fern than she lets on, or is she just as confused as to how such a terrible monster came from her?
However, as mother and daughter draw closer and the stakes get higher, the urgency draws out the complexities of the characters. They begin to shine in crises, and as the crises keep coming they become dazzling.
Walton understands the implicit rules of magic extremely well. Everything she does makes intuitive sense, like pointing out that Nor is an eighth generation witch, and therefore potentially prone to change (seven generations being the norm). This is a very different phenomenon from, say, Brandon Sanderson, who meticulously delineates every rule of his magic system (and has helpful charts!). I compare not to make value judgments (I love them both) but to highlight the way that the theme is embedded even in The Price Guide’s magic: it is not logic that governs Nor, Fern, and the rest of the clan, but the undeniable rhythms of the heart and the tidal surges of the blood.
The climax is fast-paced and satisfying, with both emotional and narrative pieces falling dramatically into place. Nor comes into her own in a way that feels inevitable but also hard-earned. A slightly uneven beginning turns into a real tour-de-force of magic and mayhem, and I couldn’t be happier I stuck it out. Nor’s triumph, tinged with sorrow and newfound maturity, really struck a cord.
The book concludes on a peaceful, self-reflective note—at least in the main story. But then there’s an epilogue tacked on, and not since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows have I been so annoyed. It was out of left field, it has little to do with the meat of the story, and if it’s setting up a sequel then I’m tempted not to buy that book on principle. And if it’s not setting up a sequel, that’s somehow worse because it introduces such uncertainty that the entire book’s quest for normalcy is all but undone. We spent hundreds of pages on an isolated island, and suddenly the world stage intervenes? Who thought that was a good idea? I recommend you rip out the epilogue before you even begin reading, so that a few pages of nonsense don’t bother you as they did me. What a sour way to end such a sweet book.