Briony saves her friend, Eldric, from succumbing to the wiles of a dangerous fairy creature and in the process, comes to terms with her magical powers and the role her magic played in the death of her stepmother and the damage to her sister's mind. Briony Larkin is a young girl who is afraid of her own magical powers. She and her sister Rose have been ill for many years and kept confined and safe in the little town of Swampsea. Rose is a simpleton, prone to screaming and saying nonsensical things and her family has learned to live with it. Briony herself feels like most of the time she's half crazy because she carries such heavy burdens on her heart and mind. No one but her stepmother knows her deepest secret – that she's a witch. When Briony was little, she could not control her magical powers and she injured Rose by calling up a wind which knocked her sister off a swing so that she hit her head on a rock. This is why Rose is not quite all there in her head. Briony also feels guilty that she was responsible for making her stepmother a cripple when she summoned a water spirit named Mucky Face which hit her stepmother so hard that it damaged her spine. During both these incidents, Briony was dealing with jealous emotions, specifically jealousy that her stepmother seemed to love Rose, more. Her stepmother forgave Briony but warned her not to tell a soul that she is a witch. She also told Briony to learn to control her emotions (jealousy in particular) and to avoid going into the swamp as much as possible.
Sadly, a few months ago, their loving stepmother killed herself. Briony finds it hard to come to terms with this because she knew her stepmother was always hungry for life and would never take her own life as everyone believes. Apparently, her stepmother just stopped eating and wasted away. Briony misses her stepmother. Her father is a clergyman and they live on an estate owned by Mr. Clayborn, a wealthy man with a sprawling mansion. The story begins when Briony, her sister and father along with their Mr. Clayborne greet Mr. Clayborn's son, Eldric, who has been away for many years studying in London.
Briony meets Eldric, who is a handsome young man that likes to dabble in the creative arts. One day, Rose goes missing and Briony and Eldric rush off into the swamp to look for her. They find Rose in the middle of the swamp surrounded by some witches. Briony calls up her wind magic which causes the witches to flee. When they return home, they learn that the local constables have caught a witch and they plan on hanging her. They will allow the witch to get a trial with the Chime Child, a person who has one foot in the human world and one in the world of the “Old Ones” (fairy world) and can determine if a person is a witch or not. They want Briony and Eldric to tell them where they last saw the other swamp witches so they can arrest them. The trip to the swamp proves fruitless and dangerous and a man dies from falling into a quicksand pit.
Meanwhile, the people of Swampsea begin to suffer from something called a swamp cough. Briony thinks it has to do with a bog spirit named Boggy Mun. She makes a bargain with Boggy Mun, asking it to remove the swamp cough in exchange that she will give it salt and some of her blood every day. Instead of agreeing to the bargain, the Boggy Mun puts the swamp cough on Rose. Briony is horrified by what she's done. Later, Briony is pestered by various swamp creatures like brownies who want her to continue telling them stories. Briony used to love telling stories to keep Rose entertained but hasn't been in the mood lately, since her stepmother passed away. One day, Mucky Face finds Briony and tells her that she wasn't responsible for summoning him the day he crippled her stepmother. He tells her he was summoned by an Old One. Mucky Face tells Briony that she should continue telling stories and write them down.
A few days later, one of the women in Swampsea is accused of being one of the witches that kidnapped Rose. Briony, Rose and Eldric are asked to testify but they know that the woman is innocent so they say their piece. The town is too bloodthirsty to let the poor girl go so she ends up being executed by hanging. One of the town girls, a pretty raven-haired young lady named Leanne, is particularly passionate about finding witches. She seems to charm Eldric and Briony tries not to be jealous.
As the days pass, Eldric seems to be a bit more sickly looking than usual. Briony and Eldric have become very good friends, both sharing an amusement for making up stories and finding creative ways to make their boring lives entertaining. Despite the fact that Eldric continues to spend much of his time with Briony, Briony can't help but notice that he seems more perky when Leanne is around. Her jealousy stirs. She learns that Mr. Clayborne has plans to drain the surrounding swamp, and he already built a water pump. Briony knows this will not sit well with the swamp creatures so late one night, she sneaks out to destroy the pump. Eldric catches her but he promises not to tell his father. He's puzzled as to what is motivating her to do such a thing but Briony is unable to explain herself.
One day, the Boggy Mun appears again and this time, Briony has a better bargain for it. She promises she will find a way to stop Mr. Clayborne from draining the swamp if he agrees to take away the swamp cough from Rose and the other people in town. The Boggy Mun gives Briony until Hallow's Day to fulfill her side of the bargain and in the meantime, he stalls the progression of the cough. On her way back, Briony is attacked by a Dead Hand (the hand of a corpse that has been reanimated), which tries to pull her into the swamp. Eldric appears just in time to save her. Briony refuses to explain why she was in the swamp.
At a dance once night, Briony is accosted by another young man who has been interested in her for a while. Eldric appears just in time to get rid of the forward young man. It is revealed that Eldric has feelings for Briony. Briony can't believe that Eldric actually likes her and she thinks he was out wandering the night because he was with Leanne. The next day, Eldric becomes very ill. Briony thinks it has something to do with her because it is the same illness that her stepmother suffered from in the past. Everyone in Eldric's household thinks Leanne is making things worse by pestering the guy rather than letting him rest and recover. Miraculously, however, after two days, Eldric recovers.
One day, Eldric and Briony are in town when they run into Leanne again. Leanne complains about needing an escort to go home and asks Eldric to accompany her. Eldric promises he will return to fetch Briony. Briony is filled with jealousy but she is distracted by a huge wave of water coming towards her, led by Mucky Face. Apparently, the Old One has summoned Mucky Face to try to kill Briony. Mucky Face asks Briony to stop it from surging onto her and Briony must use her own magic to stop it. After she gets a hold of herself she is able to calm the river again. To her horror, she finds out that Eldric had witnessed the whole ordeal.
Briony again refuses to explain herself clearly and to her relief, Eldric doesn't push her too hard to tell the truth. She asks Eldric why he was so long in coming back and Eldric can't explain. He tells her that when he's with Leanne he fells totally attracted to her but once she leaves, he can't understand why. Briony thinks Leanne is a Dark Muse – an evil fairy that feeds off of the creative energies of humans. Eldric doesn't believe her so Briony takes it upon herself to prove it.
One day, Leanne visits Eldric while Briony and Rose are around. Leanne seems very eager to see Rose draw and she keeps commenting on Eldric's talents in the creative arts. Leanne seems to pride herself at being a good influence for artists because she claims she helps them bring their works to life. Briony interprets this to mean that she feeds on the artist's energy.
One night, Eldric tells Briony he's broken it off with Leanne. But he still doesn't believe she is a Dark Muse. Briony warns Eldric that now that Leanne can't feast on him, she will be looking for another victim. She asks Eldric to bring a gun with him on Hallow's eve because she has a plan. She also musters up the courage to finally tell Eldric the truth – that she's a witch. Eldric doesn't believe her and she tries to prove it by summoning a fire, but she can't. She confesses to Eldric all the horrible things she's done in the past that has led to Rose and her step-mother suffering but Eldric doesn't think she's responsible.
On Hallow's eve, the entire town dresses up, wearing masks and costumes. Briony meets with Eldric who tells her that he wants to marry her. Briony is overcome with emotion but she has a mission to fulfill on behalf of all the folk of Swampsea. Before she runs away, she tells Eldric that he is to use the gun on her if she is caught because she doesn't want to hang. Briony runs to the graveyard and summons the spirits of the dead children who died of the swamp cough and ask them to walk the town, telling the townsfolk not to drain the swamp. In exchange, Briony tells them a story as she leads them through town. One of the ghosts turns out to be the spirit of Briony's step-mother. Briony's step-mother is vengeful and announces that she didn't kill herself – Briony killed her. Everyone in the town is shocked and they call Briony a witch and demand that she hang. Eldric uses his gun to get everyone's attention and he buys some time for Briony to run into the swamp.
Eldric follows Briony into the swamp and the Dead Hand grabs him with its vice-like grip, tearing flesh and causing his blood to spill. Briony refuses to let Eldric die so she returns to the town to get a doctor. As Briony helps Eldric to safety, she explains everything that has led up to this moment. As she talks, she figures out that her step-mother was actually a Dark Muse that fed on Briony's stories.
Briony is taken to trial where the Chime Child is in attendance. At the trial, Eldric acts as her lawyer, asking her to explain all the strange incidences that have led up to her stepmother's death. Eldric makes it clear that Briony was not the instigator but rather the victim of her step-mother, the Dark Muse. The Chime Child also asks Briony questions. Finally, to everyone's surprise, Rose offers the most important piece of evidence of Briony's innocence. She tells everyone at court that the original notes from the midwife that was attending Briony's birth mentioned that she was born at midnight. This means that Briony is not a witch but a Chime Child.
The story ends with Briony apprenticing with the Chime Child. She begins to learn not to hate herself and what she is anymore. She and Eldric are free to love each other, now.
Best part of story, including ending:
I like the strange, sing-song and witty style the story is written in - it is a style I've never read before and it was very refreshing. The dialogue was full of playful banter and poetic-isms. It's very evident that Franny Billingsley had a fun time creating Briony's internal voice.
Best scene in story:
My favorite scene was the night of Hallow's Eve, when Eldric asks to marry Briony and Briony can only tell him to shoot her if she is caught and brought to hang. It's was a very powerful and intense moment in the story that was both sweet and tragic.
Opinion about the main character:
I like that Briony always tried her best to do what was right, even if it meant risking her life and even if she didn't really know how to make things right. I also like how clever and witty Briony is as it made the story great fun to read.