Welcome back to my analysis of A Pinch of Magic by Michelle Harrison. I’ll be quoting directly from the book and noting things that are working well, as well as things I would have changed. I do this as an example of how you should be reading books when you are a writer studying them for craft.
You can view the first five chapters that I’ve analyzed on my Buy Me a Coffee by becoming a member.
A Pinch of Magic
A spellbinding middle grade fantasy about three sisters who go on a quest to break the curse that’s haunted their family for generations.
All Betty Widdershins wants is an adventure–one that takes her far away from Crowstone, the gloomy island where she’s always lived. But instead of an adventure, Betty and her sisters, Fliss and Charlie, are given of a set of magical objects, each with its own powers: a scruffy carpet bag, a set of wooden nesting dolls, and a gilt-framed mirror. And these magical objects come with their own terrible secret: the sisters’ family is haunted by a generations-long curse that prevents them from ever leaving their island–at the cost of death.
The sisters set out to break the curse and free their family forever. But after stumbling upon a mysterious prisoner who claims to be able to help them, they find themselves in great danger. And in order to break the curse–and stay alive–they must unravel a mystery that goes back centuries, one that involves shipwrecks, smugglers, and sorcery of the most perilous kind.
Betty Widdershins first learned of the family curse on the night of her birthday.
- This reminds me of Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova, where she accidentally wishes her family out of existence on her birthday. Oops.
- Widdershins is a “direction contrary to the sun’s course,” considered unlucky, and counterclockwise. Sometimes names can tell us about a character, too. In this case, Betty’s name is reaffirming her unluckiness. I mean, it’s not lucky to be cursed.
- We also learn here, although in further after this quote, her name, her age, and her problem. Betty Widdershins, turning 13, cursed. It grounds us immediately.
She liked to think she was too practical to believe in most superstitious nonsense, despite having grown up surrounded by it.”
- To a well read reader, or an observant one, here is some foreshadowing. She doesn’t believe in “superstitious nonsense,” so Im fully expecting her to get caught up in some. And we already know that she definitley is going to do just that because the first line told us so. It’s her birthday today, and she’s about to learn that she’s cursed.
Since her birthday, Fliss hadn’t been herself. She was quiet, even moody at times, and clammed up whenever Betty asked what was troubling her.
- Just before this, we saw Betty interact with her sisters, Fliss (older) and Charlie (younger), in a sort of mocking way. But now we know that Betty is attentive to her family’s feelings and cares enoughto reach out. Such is the complicated nature of sibling relationships. Sure, we make fun of each other, but we do notice when things change for better or worse and wish the best for one another.
- As a reader, I’m also curious abotu why Fliss had been quiet and if something happened on her birthday. Did she learn about the curse that Betty is about to learn about? Or did something happen to her?
Last year, the Halloween fun had been cut short when the bell of Crowstone tower had started clanging.”
- This is the first call back to the prologue. The bell means that someone escaped. As a reader, I’m wondering if it’s the prisoner who is seeking revenge.
- This is great worldbuilding, we know that the prison is close by, that Betty’s birthday is Halloween, that Halloween is celebrated in this world, and that there is a non-magical non-technological way to warn the villagers of an escapee.
- As a reader, I’m making connections to the prologue and wondering if that vengence is coming now. What is the time difference between the story and the prologue?
Betty patted her pocket, feeling the weight of the three coins there. It had taken her weeks to scrape together the return ferry fare, at a cost of a silver Raven each… She hoarded every coin, Rooks and Feathers. They’d all added up, and now that Fliss wasn’t coming, there was money to spare.
- There’s some more worldbuilding here:
- #1: It took Betty a lot of time to gather the money for just three people to take the ferry, so money is not easily earned at Poacher’s Pocket (Granny’s Tavern).
- #2 We learned about the money system. Presumably Ravens are worth the most, followed by Rooks then Feathers.
- There’s some more characterization here for Betty, too. She had intended to take both her sisters on the ferry to Marshfoot, despite Granny telling them to stay in the neighborhood. And now that there is some money to spare, she plans to get some cotton candy for her and Charlie. Betty just wants her family to be happy.
…rows of tiny prison-cell windows glowed yellow, like watchful eyes in blackness. Rising even higher, another light flickered from a solitary tower that loomed over the rest of the building.
Charlie slowed to a walk, and they sidestepped to allow a couple of people, hurrying for the ferry, to pass. “How long has father been in there now?” she asked.
“Charlie!” Betty scolded, hoping those in front hadn’t heard. She lowered her voice. “Two years, eight months.” She paused, rummaging through dates in her head. “And four days.”
- We’re seeing the prison for the first time since the prologue, though now we are definitley looking up at it from below, seeing it from the outside.
- We learn that Betty’s father is in prison, that the Widdershins are ashamed to have a family member in prison, and–although she vehemently denies it–Betty misses him. We can see that by her knowing exactly how long he’s been gone and out of her life.
If they’d lived anywhere else, she would have squirmed about it, but almost everyone who lived near the prison did so because they were related to someone on the inside.
- Crowstone is made of families, or descendants thereof, of people who are in prison.
- It makes me wonder if Crowstone was founded by criminals, recently released, or if the warders (guards) are especially hard on the villagers and throw them in jail for the smallest of crimes.
Adventure awaits the audacious.
- This is Betty’s new motto, that she’s uttering outloud for the first time ever.
- She certainly being audacious by sneaking her way onto the ferry, deliberately ignoring her grandmother’s wishes, and actively seeking out her adventure.
The boat had not gone far when Betty became aware that something was happening. The Misty Marshes were living up to their name: the prison’s lights had vanished. Instead, all that could be seen was thick, swirling gray mist, and it was curling around them, chilling their bones… A mohter sitting opposite drew her small son closer, muttering in concern.
- Time seens to stop as Betty realizes the fog is rolling in (something she was absolutely certain wouldn’t happen because double triple checked the forecast). She becomes acutely aware of what it’s covering and what it feels like.
- The most intriguing part is the mother who pulls her son close to her. That small detail makes the fog feel intimidating, even though we already know about the dangers of getting lost of hitting something the captain can’t see. That mother seems genuinely afraid.
- As a reader, I want to know what makes this fog so dangerous.
Then something hits the boat and everyone screams. We end with the image of Granny’s face coming through the fog, ominously telling the girls they’re going home.
What a great ending. Throughout the chapter, Betty was concerned about the fog rolling in and getting caught, so combining these two worst possible events into one made for a nice clean ending. And what’s left open, questions about what their Dad did to get into prison and when the prisoner from the prologue will show up are still in the reader’s mind, as is the bigger more pressing question of how exactly Granny caught them in the middle of the water.