I’m not going to lie: I picked up Once a Witch by Carolyn MacCullough because it was shiny. The cover of the paperback literally shimmers with a kind of mirror-esque iridescence that was difficult not to notice at the bookstore when I walked by. A young adult novel about witches with a teenage main character? How could I pass that up? Not to mention this young woman lives in New York, my favorite place, and has a name, Tamsin, just as strange as mine. I liked the book before I even sat down to read it.
It’s an easy read. Tamsin was born into a family of powerful witches, and on the day she was born, her grandmother declared that she’d be the most Talented among them. Unfortunately, her Talent (her ability to use magic like the rest of her family) never shows up, and by her seventeenth birthday, Tamsin has resigned herself to living at a boarding school in New York City. That works fine for most of the year because she can be “normal”, but during the summers, she’s forced to return to her childhood home — and all the magically-inclined people who come with it.
Tamsin’s older sister, Rowena, is the cream of the magical crop: she’s beautiful and extremely Talented, and she’s getting married. One night while Tamsin is behind the counter at her family’s bookstore/magic shop, a customer mistakes her for Rowena — and she neglects to correct him. Instead, she ends up agreeing to find for the man a family heirloom which has apparently been lost to the ages.
Unfortunately — or possibly fortunately? as we discover — the man and his request are more than they at first seem, and Tamsin is literally sent through time to find more than she ever wanted to know about her family’s history, her true identity, and her hidden Talent.
So what have we here? Witches, family drama, time travel! And if that weren’t enough, there’s also a classic villain thrown in there for good measure. What more could a reader want? Well … that is the question.
Honestly, I liked the story. I liked Tamsin, though I thought that her smoking habit was irritating and not exactly a novel rebellion against her family. (I never smoked when I was a rebellious teenager, for example, and I know plenty of other teens who find other, more inventive ways to push back.) Rowena was pretty two-dimensional, and I wondered why Tamsin was even trying to save her at times; she’d been so self-centered and condescending at the beginning that it was kind of a relief when she was put under a spell. Then, I almost pitied her … until she snapped out of the spell and went back to being her snotty, stuck up self.
I was glad that the focus of the novel was on the magic, and not the potential romance between Tamsin and Gabriel. Gabriel was also pretty stereotypical in the “he’s a guy; what do you expect?” kind of way, but at least he wasn’t annoying like Rowena. I did have a question about Tamsin’s Talent, however. That is to say, why didn’t it show up sooner? It’s never really explained in the novel, but I discovered that there’s a second novel, Always a Witch, so I hope some of the ambiguities are made clear, or are at least made justifiable.
I read Once a Witch on a flight to Texas from Los Angeles and back, and it was great reading for being stuck in my seat far too long. It’s not Shakespeare, but it was entertaining. I hope the sequel is equally interesting.
[V.E. Duncan is a blossoming polytheist. A writer who lives in the Los Angeles area (but who truly wishes to go back to New York City, where her heart is), she owns a cantankerous cat named Cleopatra. V.E. can be contacted through her website, Duncan Heights.]