The Witch’s Boy

Read:  2016

Author:  Kelly Barnhill

Published:  2014

Genre:  Fantasy, Young Adult

Pages:  384 (hardcover)

Selected By:  Elle Tea

Elle Tea’s Score:  Scoring Liked Book

“When Ned and his identical twin brother Tam tumble from their raft into a raging, bewitched river, only Ned survives.  Villagers are convinced the wrong boy lived.  Sure enough, Ned grows up weak and slow, and stays as much as possible within the safe boundaries of his family’s cottage and yard.  But when a Bandit King comes to steal the magic that Ned’s mother, a witch, is meant to protect, it’s Ned who safeguards the magic and summons the strength to protect his family and community.

“In the meantime, in another kingdom across the forest that borders Ned’s village, lives Áine, the resourceful and pragmatic daughter of the Bandit King.  She is haunted by her mother’s last words to her: ‘The wrong boy will save your life and you will save his.’  But when Áine and Ned’s paths cross, can they trust each other long enough to make their way through the treacherous woods and stop the war about to boil over?”  – from the Goodreads summary.

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Elle Tea’s Review

After breaking from my fantasy funk with The Girl Who Drank the Moon, I jumped immediately into a book published earlier by the same author: The Witch’s Boy.

I think if I had read this one first, I would have had a higher opinion of it.  It’s not as polished, surreal, and beautiful as The Girl Who Drank the Moon, the prose isn’t nearly as captivating, and the story itself, while interesting and imaginative, isn’t as compelling to me – nor are the characters as endearing.

Her magic could only be used in the service of others… This is what people believed, and Sister Witch allowed it.  They were only wrong by one word.  Should.  It only should be used for others.  It was a dangerous thing, her magic.  With consequences.

The tale itself follows a few threads: Ned, the eponymous son of a witch (har har) who, after surviving a tragic accident with the help of a bit of morally questionable magic, is forced to embark on the unplanned adventure that serves as the focal point of the story; then we have Ned’s mother, known only as Sister Witch, a village healer who has inherited stewardship over the world’s last known collection of pure magic; the Stones, a formation of nine enormous rocks of varying sizes through whom we learn of an ancient curse and the history of magic and how it has impacted the world in which the characters reside; the Bandit King whom love saved and grief doomed; and the hardened little girl named Áine.  Woven around these pivotal characters are an orphaned wolf, an aged queen and her scheming Court, a vicious boy-king, and a host of tattooed bandits.

“And sometimes the things that were wicked become the things that save us, and the things that were good doom us to misery and pain.  We lift our eyes to the heavens, but we live on the ground.”

My favorite of all of the characters was undoubtedly Sister Witch, with the wolf a close second.  I found the candor of the queen refreshing and amusing, while the devious Bandit King served to push the story forward.  I spent a majority of the time indifferent to the Nine Stones, though the chapter entailing how the magic came to be in the keeping of Sister Witch to begin with was one of the most interesting of the novel.  Ned was endearing, but something about him never quite grabbed me – though I did quite like the interactions between the two brothers.

A word, after all, is a kind of magic.  It locks the substance of a thing in sound or symbol, and affixes it to the ear, or paper, or stone.  Words call the world into being.  That’s power indeed.

Sadly, I think my biggest problem with this novel was my strong dislike of one of the primary characters, Áine.  I really, really did not like that horrid little girl.  Having a heart, I naturally pitied her situation and could see that her cold logic and unwavering will to survive no matter the cost was purely the result of having lost her mother and been left solely in the care of a father who, as is pointed out, “loves her… but not enough.”

It was a terrible thing when a fool with power fools with power.

But that doesn’t change the fact that I found her thoroughly unlikable.  From the moment she takes her first life (a scene which, as someone who loves animals and has a special place in her heart for wolves after having worked with them for two years, I found heart-breaking and disturbing) until the instant she lures our protagonist onto her new boat, I found her to be close-minded and brutally, unceasingly selfish.

“My mother says that selfishness is the root of tyranny.”

Yes, she tended to Ned and opted to help him when she could just as easily have left him to die out in the woods…  But she only did so because she was the reason he was injured to begin with and she believed that helping him would save what was left of her family.  We know that in her mind, in her heart, she had already set herself to kill Ned in order to accomplish her goal, and for a majority of their time together she was just waiting for Ned’s more loyal companion, the wolf, to look at her sideways so she would have an excuse to kill him.  When she did eventually warm to Ned, she still put her own needs first – she disappeared  without even telling her one and only friend in the whole world where she was going or why, because she basically had stuff to do and couldn’t be bothered with explanations.  When she finally accepted the companionship of the wolf, it wasn’t because she suddenly realized that her mistrust of him was unwarranted – he had never hurt her, and he threatened her only when she was a threat to him or Ned – nor was it because she recognized that she didn’t deserve his forgiveness for the senseless act of murder she’d committed that actually had effected his life.  Instead, she demanded that he come with her because she didn’t have anyone else and, therefore, “needs him.”

Inwardly, he marveled at the number of words that he had spoken to the wolf.  So many more than he had spoken to his own family in the last month.  The wolf didn’t notice his stutter.  The wolf didn’t flinch when he spoke.  The wolf didn’t blame him, or pity him, or think him stupid.  Instead, it had eaten his food and brought him food in return.  The wolf had come to him.

Honestly, Áine is the only character in the entire novel who successfully gets away with cold-blooded murder.  Sure, the Bandit King does his fair share of killing – he killed his own father, after all, and he sacrificed one of his own to test the limits of magic.  But we expect bad guys to be bad – and even in the death of his father it could be argued that he did so to protect his own family.  But Áine  killed a nursing mother whom she recognized meant her no harm, who she registered was absolutely no threat to her.  And she never apologized for it.  She never considered that as concerned as she is with how dangerous others may prove to be for her, she has already proven to be a danger to them.

Hoping was irrational, impractical, and imprecise.  Sister Witch was a solver.

And even all of that would have been acceptable to me, had she learned some sort of lesson about trust and selflessness by the end of the story.  But no.  She showed up again when it was convenient for her in order to demand that others change their lives and fracture their families because now was the time for adventure.  Right now.  Right this instant, no dilly-dally, no time for goodbyes, just move your ass or get left behind.

“There is no death,” the Stone said.  “There is only the next thing.  A mountain gives way to a river and becomes a canyon.  A tree gives way to its rot and becomes the ground.”

The other thing that held me back from giving this a four-cup rating – though not as much as my dislike of Áine – was the repetitiveness of some portions of the tale.  It seemed we would move along at a great pace for a while only to come to an abrupt halt in order to recap things that had already happened for the benefit of a character who was not involved in previous events.  While in reality, yes, you would need to explain what’s going on to someone who wasn’t there, I, the reader, was there, and I don’t need to be reminded about what happened three chapters ago.  And I certainly don’t need to be reminded multiple times.

I’d say this would be a good book if you’re in the mood for a bit of light fantasy but are drawing blanks on what to read.  But if you only read one book by this author, make it The Girl Who Drank the Moon.

Elle read the Amazon Kindle version of this book.

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