Title: The Last Balfour
Author: Cait Duggan
Genre: Historical Fiction, Fantasy/Paranormal
Word/Page Count: 288 pages (paperback)
Publication Details: by Harper Collins Australia on July 22nd, 2019
RRP: $19.99 AUD (paperback)
Blurb from Goodreads:
MAGIC AND FIRE ARE KINDRED THINGS . . . DISCOVER AN EXCITING NEW VOICE IN AUSTRALIAN FICTION Iona Balfour’s life is turned upside down when her beloved aunt Grizel is executed for the crime of witchcraft. Before she dies, Grizel appoints Iona as guardian of a precious family bloodstone and tells her she must flee their village and deliver the stone to the mysterious Guild of the Green Lion.
Accompanied by a new friend, Cal, Iona soon realises that she’s awakened the powers of the bloodstone. But it promises to be a perilous journey. The wolf month is no time to be on the road. And there’s a witch hunter on Iona’s trail, who has a strange obsession with the stone.
When a devastating betrayal throws her into the hands of her enemies, Iona soon finds herself in the fight of her life. Will she suffer the same fate as her aunt, or will she escape the witch hunter and fulfil her destiny?
‘The Last Balfour’ begins on February 1st 1597, right before the Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1597 was due to take place in real life, which according to historical records was between March to October of that year. Not much is known about this witch hunt as it wasn’t centrally supervised under royal commission and many records by local authorities went missing, so it’s interesting to think that the events of this novel could potentially fit into Scotland’s history and have played a role in motivating the witch hunt to come.
Our protagonist Iona Balfour comes from a bloodline of witches, and together with her sister Ishbel, she learned how to use magic from their aunt Grizel – although Iona’s magic was never a certain thing whereas Ishbel’s mastery of it was obvious. It’s only after her aunt is arrested for witchcraft and names Iona as guardian of the family bloodstone that she begins to feel a connection to the magic that is her birthright. Unfortunately it couldn’t come at a worse time as her childhood best friend returns to town with a witch finder in tow and Iona is forced to flee.
Dalziel is written ambiguously as a character who is just as likely to help Iona as he is to betray her, and his motivations are murky at best. Iona reflects on his abusive upbringing under a brutish father which led to his departure from their village as soon as he was able to secure a scholarship at a university in the city, and this casts him in a more sympathetic light than a standard traitor would normally receive. Throughout the story, it’s never clear whose side he is truly on and what he really believes, which adds an undercurrent of tension to every scene he appears in.
Cal is a new friend that Iona makes along her journey and he proves to be more true and stalwart than Dalziel; in the brief time he and Iona know each other, the pair get into numerous terrifying life-or-death situations while standing firm by each other’s side. He adds a much-needed injection of warmth and relief after all the heartache Iona endures! From his brief mention in the blurb, I wondered whether he was going to be set up as a love interest, but as Iona turns out to be only 14 and the story puts her through one grueling ordeal after another in a constant struggle to survive, there is no romantic arc here which seems to be a wise decision as it would’ve been too contrived under the circumstances.
On the topic of ordeals, be warned that there are era-appropriate torture scenes which are graphic but thankfully not excessive; it’s confronting and uncomfortable to read, but true to what real life victims accused of witchcraft were put through. Because of this, I wouldn’t recommend the book to younger readers under 14.
This is Cait Duggan’s first novel, although you wouldn’t know it from the smooth writing, deft characterization and easy immersion of the reader in early Scotland. It would have been easy for the scenes of Iona invoking blessings from pagan gods or chanting spells to come off as cheesy, but the author spent time on research into witchcraft and folk-tales as demonstrated in a page of sources at the end of the book, and this pays off in the way the story feels grounded in reality even with the paranormal elements.
At just under 300 pages, ‘The Last Balfour’ moves along briskly with a fast-paced well-constructed plot that makes it easy to devour in one sitting. Iona is an endearing, feisty young heroine whose hair-raising misadventures will have the reader tensing to see how she escapes each time. While she may be naive and either overly trusting or bratty at times, it’s understandable given her age and sheltered upbringing, and that makes the courage and resilience she displays all the more impressive. The story is self-contained and doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, but leaves room for further adventures if the author is so inclined. Based on this debut, readers will no doubt welcome more!
Pros: relatable heroine, well-developed multi-faceted characters, fast-paced writing, great attention to historical detail
Cons: uncomfortable torture scenes, a little grimdark for my personal tastes
Personal Rating: 3.5 out of 5 kitties recommend this book.
Disclaimer: Physical copy provided by publisher free for an unbiased review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.