This dark story of magic crosses time as Brackston’s immortal witch, Elizabeth Hawksmith,
becomes embroiled in the evil machinations of Gideon Masters, who follows her through the ages attempting to use his powers to seduce and then destroy her. In the sleepy village of Matravers in 2007, Elizabeth Anne Hawksmith revels in the sanctity of Willow Cottage and her days trading at the local market with her herbs, teas, lotions and soaps.
Although danger is ever-present, Elizabeth doesn’t let her sense of foreboding affect her friendship with Tegan, a fifteen-year-old girl recently moved to the village. Harboring a sense of tenderness, Elizabeth is determined to teach Tegan the sacred rites. Amid sage oil where a full moon reigns, magic potions and spells become a powerful force as Elizabeth begins to tell Tegan her secrets and share the events that bought her to Matravers.
In her story of how ignorance breeds fear and how deadly fear can be, Brackston plunges us into Elizabeth’s past.
In Batchcombe in 1627, she lives as Bess while Anne, her loving mother, harbors secrets of healing and treatments for disease. A “healer” with an intimate knowledge of the dark arts, Anne is determined to teach everything she can to her eldest daughter, including concoctions for fighting coughs and fevers and the secrets of healing along with treatments for disease.
Bess spends much of her childhood basking in the leafy embrace of the Batchcombe Woods, a hidden and secret place of magic where shy, mythical creatures lurk.
Here she meets reclusive charcoal-maker Gideon Masters. His features perpetually stern-faced and distorted by bestial lust, Gideon sets his angry, red eyes on Bess. But Gideon's powerful web of seduction pales in comparison to the mess of fever and panic that scatters outward in Bess's life when the Black Death descends upon Batchcombe.
Anne’s magic and spells are powerless against the ferocity of the plague as it churns up a charnel house of death. A sense of absence and loss turns into accusations of witchcraft as religious fundamentalism and ignorant superstition
gain a foothold in the village. Bess is forced to run from Gideon and the dark places "magnifying a thousand fold" within her. Gideon’s rage
takes on new, frightening personas against a background of fear and blood, while Brackston’s version of evil morphs into something terrifying.
Elizabeth finds work under the auspices of Dr. Gimmel in Fitzroy Square. The fetid, blood-soaked atmosphere of a 19th-century operating theater becomes synonymous with images of girls covered in freshly spilled blood, their bodies grotesquely mutilated and eviscerated. Bess, tortured with guilt and despair, tries to keep a low profile.
Her journey takes her to Passchendaele in 1917 where, amid the filth and gore, the battle-weary landscape is a perfect breeding ground for a dark energy that feeds off the cruelty and violence of war.
Although the final pages of the novel are a bit clichéd, Brackston's feisty heroine
is swept aside by a wave of history. As Elizabeth tries to make Tegan see that those who practice the dark arts will thrive, Gideon
remains a potent force, threatening to envelop them both, his black magic leaking though the ages, the shadowy forces of history trembling behind him.