“A spell for stealing beauty:
Flowers in the spring.
Sunlight on the waters.
A man overcome by a woman’s loveliness.”
Sixteen-year-old Elizabeth Cooper is a talented up-and-coming young witch in 17th century Rhode Island. She and her best friend, Prudence, belong to an exclusive “quilting circle” that uses magic to heal the sick and protect the crops. Elizabeth is infatuated with the handsome Nat Porter, but it is forbidden for a witch to marry the son of another witch, and the Widow Porter is the leader of the Fortune’s Sound Coven. When Elizabeth realizes that the First Laws governing the practice of witchcraft are enforced only by the social mores of the coven, she hatches a plan to flout the Laws and claim Nat Porter for her husband. This prequel to Claudia Gray’s Spellcaster series chronicles Elizabeth’s first steps towards the service of the One Beneath.
Gray was a little bit wily in Spellcaster, hiding the identity of her villain for a good part of the book. As a result, there wasn’t much exploration of Elizabeth’s motives, or development of her character. The First Midnight Spell remedies that lack in spades. The wonderful thing about Gray’s magical system is that every time Elizabeth casts a spell we learn more about her, as she has to glean the ingredients for each working from her own memories. We are introduced to a young woman who is jealous and ambitious from the very beginning, and who desires things she knows she cannot have. These characteristics eventually start Elizabeth down the path to the service of the One Beneath when she is stripped of her childish beliefs that she will be destroyed by her own magic or devoured by the One Beneath if she breaks the First Laws. Elizabeth follows the rules only so long as she fears a higher punishment for breaking them. Given her considerable and still-growing powers, the wrath of the coven is not a sufficient deterrent. The harrowing lengths to which Elizabeth will go to best her rival for Nat’s affection and have him at any cost make for a chilling portrait of the villain as a young woman. When I saw Gray speak at UBS Seattle back in March, she took a lot of delight in her villain, calling Elizabeth the best thing about Spellcaster, but it’s here in The First Midnight Spell that Elizabeth really has room to strut her evil stuff, even if she is not quite as powerful as she will eventually become.
The First Midnight Spell is really only the beginning of Elizabeth’s backstory, and that of the town that is to become Captive’s Sound, but some key elements are set in place. Besides starting Elizabeth down the path to serving the One Beneath, we also meet Goodwife Hale, the author of the powerful Book of Shadows featured in Spellcaster. I was really hoping the origin of the Cabot curse might be unveiled here, but there are no Cabots mentioned in The First Midnight Spell. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for another novella between Steadfast and Sorceress to cover that story.