I'm giving this book four stars rather than three stars because the characters were so vivid and real that they made the book for me. Briony especially. Her voice is so strong and so distinct that it's unbelievably refreshing to read about in a first person YA novel, where too many first person narrators blur together. Briony can be no one but Briony. She's complex, strong willed, and doesn't always make the right decisions even though she thinks they're right at the time. Eldric, her love interest, was also wonderful. He and Briony worked so well together, and I'm pleased to say that their relationship seemed real. It was based on young love rather than young lust. Their interactions, as in their formation of the Fraternitus Bad-Boyificus and their jokes and banter, felt very real.
The magic in this book is also fascinating, as is the setting (near a swamp). The whole idea of witches turning to dust once they've been hanged and and magical creatures living in the swamp was amazing.
The only quibble I have with the book is the nebulous plot. I don't think it's as developed as it could be. In fact, I think the book would be much better if it were tightened considerably. It felt too much like the characters (wonderful though they were) wandering around bumping into things. (Briony goes somewhere. She talks to Eldric. She has internal monologues. She decides to do something. She does it. She has internal monologues. She talks to Eldric. She talks to Rose. She finds all sorts of reasons why she can't act for at least a week, which then means that she will do more talking to Eldric and Rose, etc...) It wasn't that there wasn't a plot, it was that it wasn't as tight as it could be, so all the little scenes of her walking and talking and thinking lacked focus. Part of this had to do with the style of writing - lots and lots of dialogue and internal thoughts, very, very little on the setting or actions. I liked Briony's voice a lot, and I liked the wittiness of her thoughts, but the lack of concrete description of the setting made the book, for me, lack an anchor. You get a line here and there about the peeling wall paper, and the golden rye fields, and the blue and white painted sheets in the garden party, like little minnows of description that flash by before you can catch hold of them. In the book Briony talks about the hollow bird bones of her hand, and I feel that image aptly describes the book itself. It was all voice, without the solidity of plot to focus and bolster it except with a few feather light touches.
What surprises and twists there were I found predictable. I figured them out very early on. However, the joy in this case is not in being surprised, but in watching Briony discover what you already know.
I hope my review does not seem wholly negative. The problem is that there's only so much praise you can give before you start to babble, or give things away. It's easier to come up with concrete reasons of what you didn't like than what you liked. You should read this book. It's worth it. Getting to know Briony, and Eldric, and Rose, is worth it. What you ultimately should be considering is whether you should buy this or check this out from the library. If you are unsure, check this out from the library. Spending more time in a library is never, ever a bad thing.