Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Once a Witch by Carolyn MacCullough

Title: Once a Witch
Author: Carolyn MacCullough
Publisher: Clarion Books
Release Date: September 14th, 2009
Pages: 292 pages (hardback)
How I Got the Book: PDF Copy

Tamsin Greene comes from a long line of witches, and on the day she was born, her grandmother proclaimed that she would be one of the most Talented among them.

But Tamsin's magic never showed up.

Now, seventeen years later, she spends most of her time at boarding school in Manhattan, where she can at least pretend to be normal. But during the summers, she's forced to return home and work at her family's bookstore/magic shop.
One night a handsome young professor from New York University arrives in the shop and mistakes Tamsin for her extremely Talented older sister. For once, it's Tamsin who's being looked at with awe and admiration, and before she can stop herself, she agrees to find a family heirloom for him that was lost more than a century ago. But the search--and the stranger--prove to be more sinister than they first appeared, ultimately sending Tamsin on a treasure hunt through time that will unlock the secret of her true identity, unearth the past sins of her family, and unleash a power so strong and so vengeful that it could destroy them all.

In a spellbinding display of storytelling, Carolyn MacCullough interweaves witchcraft, romance, and time travel in a fantasy that will exhilarate, enthrall, and thoroughly enchant.


The Greene family is chock-full of witches and people with magical powers, or Talents. Tamsin Greene, though she is from this family, seems to have no Talents at all when others like her sister Rowena have Talents in spades. If she hadn't been announced as a child who would be one of the most Talented the Greene family had ever seen, maybe that wouldn't be so bad. In a family where abnormal is good, she is the normal one. When she is home from boarding school and working in her family's store, a man named Alistair comes in and asks her to find a clock that belonged to his family, but was lost long ago. She should hand the job over the her sister, but Tamsin wants to do it because she was the one he asked (though he thought she was Rowena). Her hunt for the clock will take her through time itself and uncover more secrets than she might want to know.

To be honest, I didn't realize I was going to read this book today. I'm in the middle of another novel that I'm loving, but I saw this book on Amazon and got curious. I like witch books but very rarely find any that I want to read. I almost skipped over this one because of Cassandra Clare's (hiss...) being on the cover, but it sounded so good. From the time I found a  PDF copy to the minute I finished it, I took no breaks, even when my eyes were burning. Thank goodness I decided to read Once a Witch because it was worth it!

Very early on in the book, I realized that despite all the magic and Talents, this book wasn't about about magic. It was more about Tamsin and her family, Tamsin's efforts to be something other than the disappointment she perceives them to think of her as. She would have been unusual in the first place because she lacked any Talents, but it's especially because she was supposed to be so great and ended up being so... well, so not great, that Tamsin is so hurt. She does what she does at first because she wants to impress them and make them think she is something other than a disappointment. She has serious issues with her family and seeing her work them out provided as much of a good read as the well-paced and very interesting plot.

The book's narrative was utterly readable and Tamsin's voice felt authentic as a teenager, both in actions and voice. I am normally not a fan of stories told in the present tense after one series ruined that for me forever, but I think that chosen narrative method added to the story. It made me feel like I was right there with Tamsin as she met Alistair and went searching for his clock and the details felt just a little more vivid than normal. I do not believe the story could have been told another way and still get me as involved as I eventually got.

While Tamsin got a lot of development and felt so real, no one else really came to life for me. There were a few characters I had a certain fondness for, like the grandmother/matriarch Althea and Aunt Beatrice, but even they had little development. The story itself more than made up for that by keeping me swept up in all that was going on so that I did not question or even notice how flat the secondary characters were while reading. It didn't hit me until I was finished reading and trying to compose this review.

I have no clue why some people were concentrating on the romance. Tamsin's romance was cute and all, but it was nothing extraordinary. It was obvious what was going to happen after she met her love interest and though the did have some chemistry together, most of the romance before the big kiss came from someone outside (like Tamsin's roommate Agatha) hinting that he liked her. Could that have been shown instead of told? Probably. It wasn't the worst romance I've ever read nor the best, but it wasn't anything remarkable or special.

Another time early in the book, I wanted to slap Tamsin across the face because she hit one of her younger relatives over the head with a teddy bear when he was being bad (he had taken a girl's teddy bear and was running away with it) and when Rowena came to see her at one point, Tamsin tried to splash water all over her. She took her sour mood out on a child! That is not okay whether or not he is already being bad. Tamsin lost some serious points with me and it took her the majority of the book to win them back. The water-splashing was also not okay because while Rowena had her not-so-nice moments with her sister, that was not one of those times.

I'm also suffering some confusion about how the family itself works, triggered both by the book and the website for the book. It seems that it is unusual for Greenes to marry someone who is Talentless or outside of the family. From what I found on the website, Aunt Lydia was somewhat of an outcast for marrying the Talentless Uncle Phil, which implies that it is not exactly normal. Rowena herself was marrying a third cousin of hers named James. Does the Greene family often run across other Talented people to marry? If so, why did we not meet some of these unrelated Talented people? Do they often marry Talentless people outside of the family, like Aunt Lydia? Do they often marry distant relatives in the family, like Rowena? I imagine you can only marry within the family for so long before it turns into a severe case of inbreeding because everyone is so closely related. The entire situation with that is unclear and the mechanics about that have been bothering me nonstop since I finished reading.

Once a Witch was worth the five hours I spent reading it. I already knew there would be a sequel because I saw that too while browsing on Amazon, but the ending made it that much more obvious. I'm hooked on this series and am eagerly awaiting the release of Always a Witch in August 2011. That's a long wait, but I think I can stare at the cover to satisfy myself until then.

Isn't that a pretty cover? I'm jealous that some other book reviewers got review copies and already got to read it! Back on subject, I recommend Once a Witch to anyone willing to read it.

4 stars!

What am I reading next?: Wildthorn by Jane Eagland (I mean it this time. This will be the next book I review.)