Three sisters, a mysterious curse and a race against time
Updated: Mar 14
Spoiler-free review of A Pinch of Magic by Michelle Harrison
A Pinch of Magic is an absolutely irresistible blend of adventure, intrigue and enchantment, which draws you in immediately and is action-packed from page one. The first in a trilogy, this introduces the Widdershins sisters, Charlie, Betty and Fliss, who discover they are bound by an ancient curse. A series of disasters sets the curse in motion and the sisters must race against the clock to break it before it destroys them.
The sisters live in Crowstone, surrounded by eerie, misty marshes. Nearby are the Sorrow Isles of Repent (which holds a prison), Torment (where exiles live) and Lament (where all the dead are buried). Freezing and foggy, wind frequently whistles around ankles, even giving a the reader a chill. It's a bleak but extremely atmospheric setting.
Charlie, Betty and Fliss are wonderful characters and their granny is a remarkable woman too (tender and terrifying in equal measures!). The sibling relationship is tender and convincing, the sisters can be as rough with one another as they can be affectionate. Each sister has a clearly defined personality and is essential to the narrative in their own distinct way.
Betty is the main protagonist and a brilliant heroine. She is brave, determined, quick-witted, kind and fiercely loyal, but all three are fantastic and can do amazing things when under pressure. Fliss is quite maternal and protective of her sisters, and Charlie is an incredibly endearing and impressive six-year-old.
A Pinch of Magic is full of strong women; in addition to the siblings and their granny, there's also the mysterious female prisoner of Crowstone Tower. Her story runs parallel to that of the Widdershins' and the narrative shifts from the present to the past in order to tell it. This is done skilfully and seamlessly, and these parts of the book are just as fast-paced as the rest.
I loved A Pinch of Magic - it's everything you'd want from a book - full of surprises, compelling characters, and bursting with magic. I was on edge the whole time I was reading this and couldn't put it down. It was finished within 24 hours, and I found it difficult to tear myself away from it whenever necessary to do so. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but I was shocked by how intense and dramatic it was - I had knots in my stomach at times!
This is one of those stories that you don't want to end because you're enjoying it so much, yet paradoxically can't stop reading and speeding towards the conclusion! Luckily, I was able to begin the second book in the series, A Sprinkle of Sorcery, as soon as I had finished this (review coming soon). After flying through that one too, I was delighted to discover I didn't have long to wait until A Tangle of Spells, the next instalment, releases on the 4th of February.
Harrison's writing is beautiful and evocative. She creates an intricate and interesting world that feels very real, with so many clever details that add to the ambience. Even something as simple as the sound of crows' song takes on a different quality and becomes enormously powerful. This was my first book by Michelle Harrison, but I will definitely be reading lots more by this author. The Thirteen Treasures won the Waterstone's Children's Book Prize in 2009 and I hope to get hold of it soon.
If I hadn’t already seen A Pinch of Magic recommended on excellent book blog, Spread Book Joy, I probably would have purchased it because of its attractive design. I love the cover and there are pen and ink vignettes at the beginning of each chapter which reflect the unfolding events. These include silhouettes of each sister, crows, feathers and Crowston Tower. I've love fictional maps and how they make a story even more immersive and there's also a detailed map inside the cover.
The artwork is all by Melissa Castrillon. She has written and illustrated lots of picture books and I want them all! Her latest, Can You Keep a Secret? is out in March and has gone straight on to my wishlist. I've got copies of The Balcony and Mighty Min on their way to me and plan to write about them on the Picture Book Snob blog after they arrive.
I'm counting the days until A Tangle of Spells releases. I really hope there are more than three books in the series. Although I can't wait to read the third one, I’ll be reluctant to say goodbye to the Widdershins sisters when it ends! Without giving anything away, I'd love to read a spin-off about the prisoner in the tower from this book too.
Even if there aren't many more additions to the chronicles of Crowstone, I'm sure I'll be returning to the trilogy over the years. It's clear that the magic of these stories will be just as strong on subsequent readings. I'm looking forward to sharing them with my kids when they're older.