Sixteen-year-old Ethan Wate has lived in the small town of Gatlin, South Carolina his whole life. Ethan's mom died in a car accident recently, so he lives alone with his dad and their long-time housekeeper, Amma. Ethan just bums around town, hanging out with his best friend, Link, playing basketball, and reading. Oh, and there's a mysterious unknown song on his iPod called "Sixteen Moons" that appears and disappears at random.
Aside from that, nothing ever happens in Gatlin. But that changes pretty quickly when Lena Duchannes rolls into town. In a hearse. Yeah, that's how Lena rolls.
Ethan and Link spot Lena and her morbid motor on the way to school. Ethan's excited to meet the new girl—as a member of the Jackson High basketball team, Ethan is expected to date in his social circle. He's sick of these interchangeable cheerleaders, led by the insufferable Emily Asher, and he's dreaming of someone new, smart, and interesting. No, literally, he's dreaming of a new girl.
Ethan's been having mysterious dreams, dreams of a girl falling, and Ethan failing to save her. He loves this dream girl, even though he has no idea who she is. Weird.
Unfortunately for Lena, Ethan's the only one looking forward to meeting her. Gatlin doesn't take kindly to new folk, especially if they're different from the cookie-cutter template that seems to have stamped out all of Gatlin's residents. It doesn't help that Lena's the niece of the town shut-in, Macon Ravenwood.
Weird stuff starts happening: windows shatter, light bulbs short out, and Gatlin experiences the weirdest weather patterns this side of El Niño. All of this just intrigues Ethan more and more. And to top it all off, he recognizes Lena as the girl from his dreams.
Ethan struggles to get acquainted with Lena. Accustomed to being the outcast, she's reluctant to open up. But Ethan's persistent. Eventually, they experience quite the icebreaker: a shared flashback to Civil War-era Gatlin. We haven't seen that suggested anywhere on OkCupid.
Through a series of flashbacks triggered by a cursed locket, Ethan and Lena see Gatlin at the end of the Civil War. Union soldiers have set the town on fire, and Genevieve Duchannes, Lena's great-great-great-great-grandmother, is fleeing Greenbrier, her plantation home, as it burns to the ground. Her mother and sister don't make it out alive.
In all the smoke and confusion, Genevieve runs into Ethan. Not our narrator, but Ethan Carter Wate, Ethan's great-great-great-great uncle. (Whew, he's pretty great.) Genevieve believed Ethan was dead—she hadn't received a letter from him in two years. Turns out, he deserted. He didn't believe in the Confederacy so he jumped ship.
Their reunion is short lived when Ethan Carter is shot right in front of Genevieve in a struggle with Union soldiers. Genevieve is determined to resurrect Ethan, and she commands her housekeeper, Ivy, to retrieve The Book of Moons.
Ivy tries to discourage Genevieve from using the Book. There's no moon, which means it's not a good night for magic. Plus, you can't use The Book of Moons without a trade. Genevieve disregards Ivy's advice and does it anyway. She'll try anything to bring back the man she loves. Sweet? Sure. Risky? Definitely.
As you might expect, the resurrection spell goes awry. Come on, does dark magic ever work out right in the end? Ethan isn't brought back to life, Genevieve is turned evil, and all her descendants are cursed. Oops.
After their flashback experience, Lena tells Ethan that she's a Caster, as in spell-caster. She has all sorts of magical powers, some she can control more than others: manipulating the weather, surging electricity, and mixing Milk Duds and popcorn. Okay, you don't need magical powers for that last one, but it tastes quite magical. Lena's family can do a whole host of magical things, from shape-shifting to healing, teleporting to telekinesis.
As their romance grows, mysteries are solved, but more questions are raised. Macon and Amma repeatedly conspire to keep the two teens apart. They're afraid their relationship will upset the Order of Things. (You know stuff is important when it's capitalized.)
On the surface, there doesn't seem to be anything odd about Ethan and Lena's relationship. Sure, Ethan receives electric shocks and shortness of breath when he touches Lena, but that's what love is like, isn't it?
Over-protective adults are the least of their concerns, though. Someone is after Lena. The Darkest Caster of them all: Sarafine. It doesn't help matters that Sarafine is also Lena's mother, whom she thought had been dead for over ten years.
Not enough drama for you? Well how about this? Lena is afraid of her own sixteenth birthday, which is quickly approaching. Thanks to Genevieve, when a Duchannes turns sixteen, she is Claimed. That means that The Book of Moons chooses whether she will be Light or Dark. If she goes Dark, she will lose everything she knows—she might even kill those she loves. Lena is deeply afraid of going Dark and worries that everything she does—the lightning storms, the broken windows—are all signs pointing toward inevitable Darkness.
She's not the only one in her family who has gone Dark. Ridley, Lena's sultry cousin, went Dark a year ago. Now she's in cahoots with Sarafine, Lena's mother, and will do anything to keep Ethan and Lena apart. Man, things really aren't looking good for Lena.
During a reenactment of the Civil War Battle of Honey Hill, Sarafine puts her endgame into motion. Without anyone realizing it, she had been closer than anyone expected. Wait for it… she was lurking in the body of Link's mother, Mrs. Lincoln! Creepy. Sarafine reveals her true form and an epic clash with Lena begins. Sarafine brings back-up, too: Macon's evil brother, Hunting.
Many secrets and lies are revealed during this confrontation between mother and daughter. If Lena goes Dark, all her Light Caster relatives (the majority of them) will die. If Lena goes Light, all her Dark relatives—including Sarafine and Uncle Macon, who is a Lilum, a Dark Creature—will die. Bummer.
During the confrontation, Macon dies during a struggle with Hunting, and Sarafine stabs Ethan. With Ethan in a bloody heap at Lena's feet, it's all eerily reminiscent of what happened to Genevieve and Ethan Carter over a hundred years earlier.
And guess what? Lena repeats Genevieve's mistake. She uses The Book of Moons to resurrect Ethan. In doing so, she goes unclaimed, and she seems to be both Light and Dark. Hmmm. Ethan, meanwhile, is resurrected, but Macon, who would do anything to protect Lena, has died. Because Lena went unclaimed, Sarafine, Hunting, and the other Dark Casters live to fight another day.
In the end, "Sixteen Moons" becomes "Seventeen Moons," promising another eventful year in Gatlin, South Carolina.