Magic and potions abound in this adventure set in modern New Zealand. The protagonist is 14 year old Charlotte, a potion apprentice who arrives to further her studies under the best potion maker of them all: Mikaere Tahuriorangi. Shortly after she moves in to his rural dwelling, complete with a garden brimming with herbs both familiar and strange, she finds herself at the centre of an international magical crisis and her life is at stake. Around the world, potion apprentices have been disappearing, a rogue potion-maker is suspected of kidnapping them to use their blood for his own super potion and Charlotte is next on his list.
What follows is an adventure full of schemes, plans, failures and deals made with the magical agency The Order. Charlotte continues her learning and stumbles upon her ability to call up the spirit of the highly dangerous and poisonous Belladonna plant. This unusual ability, though perilous, has potential to help the Order catch their villain, so she sets about learning how to control the Belladonna spirit. Things invariably get out of hand and as they do so she comes to understand herself better, realising her limits and accepting that it is okay to ask for help when you are unsure.
Despite the story being told from Charlotte’s point of view, I personally didn’t feel a strong connection to her. This may be due to the style of narration, which is “Charlotte M Underwood’s collection of letters, notes and relevant excerpts related to the incident now known as ‘A Dash of Belladonna.’” While the mix of alternating styles and viewpoints a great idea to move the story along, I found these jumps distracted somewhat from the flow of the story; one minute we are reading one of Charlotte’s letters, the next an agent’s report, then onto a progress report from one of her tutors and back to more letters, some with herbology notes included.
That said, the writing is strong, the plot has a good pace with great moments of tension to keep you guessing, especially when there are magical spirits who destroy everything around them and uncertain alliances. The cast of characters, Charlotte included, are interesting and with well-rounded personalities and I wanted to keep reading to see how the adventure would resolve. Resolve it certainly did, and Charlotte does learn her lessons (both personal and academic) and finds a new level of understanding about her place in the world where magic and non-magic can live together.
From a book design perspective, the cover is brilliant – bright, lively and engaging, and the spell pages add a nice touch, however they could do with being enlarged and made clearer. On the whole, A Dash of Belladonna is certainly an entertaining read that will appeal to readers who enjoy contemporary fantasy and who wish for their own magic wand.
Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen
A Dash of Belladonna
by J Rackham
Published by Lasavia Publishing, 2017