Do as you will, but harm no one.
What you give will be returned to you threefold.
Fall in love whenever you can.

The last of these rules is particularly difficult for the Owens women to follow, as their ancestor, Maria Owens, laid a curse on her descendants. As she had been crossed in love, so would every man who dared to fall in love with one of her family.

You remember Maria Owens, I hope, from Practical Magic. (Though if you haven’t read Practical Magic, that’s all right. That one was written first, but The Rules of Magic comes first chronologically, and as far as I can tell, you can read them in either order.) She was the first in a long line of witches, all women who kept their own last name, passing it and their gift on to their daughters. For the most part, there have only ever been daughters, but every so often a boy comes along, and he has the same magical potential as his sisters.

In this generation, there is just such a boy.

Frances, Bridget, and Vincent Owens have grown up in New York, just distant enough from the Owens’s ancestral home in Massachusetts that they don’t know much about magic at all. Their mother doesn’t talk about it, and their father has tried to raise them right, treading a fine line between keeping them from using magic and still being a good parent. But as we saw in Practical Magic, you can’t deny what’s in your blood. Frances has a preternatural ability to call birds to her. Bridget can read minds. Vincent is so charming that a nurse tried to steal him from the hospital just after he was born, without understanding why she did so. They’re witches, and when a letter arrives the summer Frances turns seventeen, inviting her to stay with her aunt Isabelle in Massachusetts, all three of them jump at the chance to go.

Once there, the three siblings find that being an Owens means a great deal. It means you have magic running through your blood, and you can use it to help or to hurt. (It’s far better to use it to help.) It means you have family all over: another Owens, April, arrives partway through summer, bursting in and showing that Frances, Bridget, and Vincent aren’t nearly as rebellious as they might think. It means the world is not made up of physics so much as it is of metaphor. Witches really do float, and a book that wants to belong to another person will burn your fingertips when you touch it.

But more pressingly, for three teenagers, it means you cannot fall in love. Learning about the family curse, however, does not mean that they plan to hide from love forever.

The three set out on difficult, sometimes contradictory journeys in their quest to understand the curse and determine whether they can or cannot be loved. The contradiction is what makes the book so believable. Even when they can levitate tables and see hints of their own future, teenagers will always be teenagers, without the seeming simplicity of childhood or the supposed self-assuredness of adulthood. They are caught in between and don’t know how to navigate the world, let alone navigate themselves.

Lately I’ve been getting into fantasy that either crosses genres or plays with the rules of its own genre. Practical Magic and The Rules of Magic are two excellent examples of the former. In my review of Practical Magic, I described it as magical realism, and I stand by that. It hovers just on the edge of fantasy and literary without giving in too much to either side, which can be a delicate balancing act, considering how the two genres tend to feel about each other. The Rules of Magic has the same feel, but at its heart it is a book about growing up, so much so that I hardly noticed Frances and Bridget growing older to become the aunts from the first book.

I think what I’ve liked most about these two books, though is their treatment of magic. It’s part of the world, but it only exists in the blood of a few select families. (And we do find in this book that the Owens are not the only ones gifted with magic.) It has rules, but even those rules feel ephemeral at times. It’s partly scientific and partly other, and this is shown in no better way than through the three siblings. Frances shows us the scientific part of magic, with her determination to understand what it is that exists in their blood and how it works. Vincent shows the passionate side, with his dangerous leanings toward darker spells and the looming threat of his fate. Daydreaming Bridget shows the side that defies all rational explanation, the side that can only be controlled by the heart.

Whether this is your first foray into Alice Hoffman’s work, as it was for me, or you’ve been reading her for years, I’d very much suggest picking up these books. I know I intend to read more of her work as soon as I get the chance.


By Jo Niederhoff

Jo Niederhoff has been reading fantasy for so long that she sometimes forgets the real world doesn't have dragons. This is slightly disappointing, but she's just as glad that she won't be eaten by giant lizards. To make up for the lack of magic and inexplicable things, she writes fantasy (and the occasional science fiction), some of which she posts on FictionPress as RussetDivinity. Currently she alternates living between her family and college, but considering she's getting a degree in creative writing, she'll likely be with her family for some time after graduation. You can follow her on Twitter @JoNiederhoff.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.