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Spellbinding romantic fantasy with feisty heroine, violence.

What parents need to know

Educational value

The villagers' mob-like behavior toward suspected witches might inspire readers to learn more about how suspected witches have been treated in the past. Readers who enjoy this book may be inspired to read other romantic fantasies (see our list of recommended romantic reads).

Positive messages

Briony has much to learn about mercy and tenderness -- particularly for herself. By the book's end, she is learning just how hard that work can be. Readers will find themselves thinking about how we shape our views of ourselves and our world, and how reality can be far more complex than we realize.

Positive role models

Briony is smart, brave, and fiercely independent. Though she is often misguided, her intentions are good. She has a strong sense of right and wrong and is a harsh but fair judge of character. Despite his bad-boy reputation, Eldric’s mischief-making is relatively harmless. His empathy and open-heartedness -- offering company to a woman who’s lost her young child, tending to Briony when she’s ill, being patient and accepting of Rose -- make him a fine model of friendship.


A suitor tries to force himself on Briony, and a rival fights him off; Briony badly beats a boy who jeers at her twin sister; an innocent girl suspected of being a witch is hanged; one character is murdered; the swamp is full of dangerous beings that can seriously injure or kill people -- and do.


A few mild romantic situations and references to feeling lustful, and one holiday night is described as being the cause of many abrupt weddings.


A few uses of “bitch” and “bastard.”

Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking

An alehouse is a central meeting place in the village, and several characters drink -- some heavily, and with ugly consequences. Briony, 18, occasionally drinks and gets intoxicated once. Some characters take arsenic as a drug.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that this supernatural tale has a fair amount of violent elements, including dangerous spirits in a swamp, the grisly death of an adult, the maiming of two characters, the hanging of an innocent girl, an emotionally manipulative parental figure, and more. But all this darkness is woven into a very good mystery tale that closes on an uplifting, hopeful note.

What's the story?

Briony is a witch and hates herself for her dark secret. She blames herself for causing her stepmother’s death, breaking her twin sister’s mind, and bringing heartache after heartache to her family. She feels unworthy of the friendship and kindness offered by handsome Eldric, newly arrived in the Swampsea. When her twin, Rose, falls ill with the deadly swamp cough -- sent by the Old Ones to punish the children for efforts to drain the swamp -- Briony realizes the only way to save her sister’s life is to reveal her secret -- and risk being executed.

Is it any good?


Author Franny Billingsley writes with a poetic, enchanting voice, weaving magic with delightful use of language. Her characters are strong and, for the most part, appealing. Sensitive readers will find themselves rooting for smart, brave Briony, trapped in a prison of self-hatred, but the most vivid character may be the swamp itself, pulsing with mystery. Some of Billingsley’s choices are little odd -- the use of a colloquial, antiquated style of diction by everyone except the central figures feels forced and awkward, for example. But mostly this is a book that is a sheer pleasure to read.

Readers half as clever as Briony will very likely guess the book’s ending, but won’t mind a bit because the journey is so captivating. Some may be disappointed to find, in the end, a rather typical romantic convention at the heart of the story: The beautiful, seemingly independent heroine ends up needing -- and craving -- to be saved by her Prince Charming. But the misty, murky world of the Swampsea will linger long in readers’ hearts and minds.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about the appeal of romantic fantasies. Why is this such a popular genre for teens, particularly for girls? What other books have you read that fit into this genre?

  • This has many classic elements of romantic novels: a dashing new arrival, a rival suitor, and a strong-minded heroine who, in the end, is relieved to find comfort in the arms of the one she once tried to keep at arm's length. Does this book fit the archetype exactly -- or is it different in any way? Did you find the ending satisfying?

Book details

Author:Franny Billingsley
Topics:Magic and fantasy
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:Dial Books
Publication date:March 17, 2011
Number of pages:368
Publisher's recommended age(s):12

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Kid, 11 years old August 20, 2011

Really Good

I loved this book- and was romantic, fantastical, and scary....... a great book!
What other families should know
Too much sex
Kid, 12 years old January 27, 2012

Not good for children

It was sort of violent,with danger, and it's kind of scary I wouldn't recommend it for younger kids. A main character's hand is ripped off, and a death skull appears on someone's shoulder, who eventually dies. There are creatures who slowly suck the creativity out of people as well. A innocent girl is hung. The main character also killed her stepmother.There is mild cursing, as said in the review above. I was concerned mostly about sexual content. A scene or two was a bit too descriptive for the younger kids. Also the mention of witches with little clothing. I think I could have waited a year or two to read it myself. Also included were characters getting drunk, and acting a bit tipsy; as well as characters who were arsenic consumers. However, I thought the plot was very well sequenced and written. It was a good book, although a bit mature.
What other families should know
Too much violence
Too much sex
Too much swearing
Too much drinking/drugs/smoking
Kid, 11 years old April 15, 2011


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