My Summary: In 1915, Eliza Williams is sent off to the Billings School for Girls by her mother with hopes that the school will change Eliza as it has changed May, Eliza's perfect older sister. But Eliza is not like her sister. She craves adventure, loves to read tragic novels, and would rather die than become a demure clone of her sister. Upon arrival, Eliza quickly bonds with Catherine White and Alice Ainsworth, which also unfortunately means she has to spend time with Theresa Billings, Catherine's best friend. Theresa makes her disdain for Eliza readily known, because a Williams is always a Williams...and she does not like a Williams. Together, the girls discover a buried secret that leads to mysterious books about witchcraft. Unable to resist the temptation, they create a coven and grow more attached to magic. But the more they use, the more troubling events come to pass until finally the worst possible outcome happens. And Eliza is about to learn that some secrets are better off buried.
Thoughts: In this prequel to the Private series, a surprising new direction is taken: Magic. You do not have to have read the Private novels to enjoy this one (although if you do start the series, don't expect any mentions of magic until the very end of the 12th novel of the series). Narrated in the third person, Eliza Williams has what our heroine Reed Brennan of the Private series does not -- a backbone. She isn't afraid to take charge and does not let people walk over her, but she still remains likable. Her relationship with a certain boy may seem reminiscent of Reed & Thomas. As with that duo, I feel like Eliza's relationship needs more substance. It's too quick and too attached for barely knowing each other.
Brian's writing is as addictive as ever, everything is easily visualized, but I would have loved to see the mystery and darker aspects pushed more. I wanted more suspense, more of that eerie feel to the story. Yet, between boy drama, sneaking around after dark, casting spells on boys who get too fresh, and dark consequences, The Book of Spells is a much needed boost to the Private series.
Highlights: I got that spark from this novel that the other novels of the Private series are starting to lose. The relationships between all the girls was a plus for me because it seemed more natural and believable than it's starting to feel in the latter novels of the Private series. The relationship between Theresa, Catherine, Eliza and the rest of the coven was always amusing, and sometimes even sweet. But it was without a doubt the surprise moments toward the end that made this book rock.
Lowlights: The story seems to end very abruptly. Yes, things are tied up slightly, but I've still got some questions. Another issue is that some of the characters seemed like slightly altered versions of ones in Private. And it seems like the story didn't really get going and intriguing until after the halfway mark. I wish this novel wasn't a prequel, because I want more with these characters. It would be nicer to see this as a spin off series of its own so that there could be more development with the characters/relationships, not to mention to answer some of the lingering questions.
Verdict: I liked it. I didn't love it, but enjoyed it because I'm a sucker for some magic. In the case of this prequel, I think the magic aspect works. In the case of the upcoming 13th Private novel...well, I guess we'll see. I'm a bit skeptical that it will work out well since the Private series has always just been straight up murder/romance/mystery/suspense - no magic involved.