The Witch’s Boy by Kelly Barnhill: A Review

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Hardcover, 384 pages
Published September 16th 2014 by Algonquin Young Readers
Source: Publisher

 

Someone ought to have warned me that writing reviews while suffering from a debilitating cold is not that great a idea but it’s too late to think about that now.

As a preface, that was lame. Let it not reflect on the awesomeness that is  The Witch’s Boy, Kelly Barnhill’s latest contribution to middle grade literature. In the next few paragraphs, I will try my absolute best to convince you to pick this book up.

I read Barnhill’s Iron Hearted Violet a few years ago and was impressed with both the cover (which was a huge reason I picked up to be honest) and the story. The Witch’s Boy surpassed all expectations I had of the novel and went beyond it. Let me unwrap that statement.

The Witch’s Boy begins with the death of a boy, one half of a pair of twins. “The wrong boy,” as the remaining twin is called, survives. His mother, the village witch, to whom has been entrusted the last remaining magic in the world, is determined that she will not lose the remaining twin to the river that claimed one of her boys. So she weaves magic and makes sacrifices and ends up saving her remaining child. But at a price: the remaining twin is clumsy, finds it difficult to talk and is unable to form relationships with other people. Even his relationship with his parents is stilted; perhaps he feels guilty for surviving when his brother didn’t. He grows up without being able to escape the feeling that there was a mistake and he shouldn’t have been the one to survive.

Ned, the surviving twin, lives in a kingdom that is bordered by a large, impassable forest beyond which lies, according to local lore, nothing. Ned’s father is the only one who ventures into this forest to cut the necessary wood for building but he, too, doesn’t go far.

Of course, the world doesn’t end on the other side of the forest. Aline lives in the kingdom on the other side of the forest, in a coastal town with her fisherwoman mother and her father. But her mother succumbs to disease and her father succumbs to something…else. Something much more sinister and alienating than simple death. Aline and Ned’s lives collide when Aline’s father tries to take the magic that was entrusted to Ned’s mother.

Usually, middle grade novels offer a boy and a girl pair of protagonists (probably to ensure that readers have a choice with whom to relate to) and usually there is some sort of lopsidedness in the portrayal of the two protagonists. One of them may be portrayed as more (or less) reliable than the other or one may be more adventurous/courageous than the other. Both Ned and Aline are immensely complex characters who would, were there need for it, be able to single-handedly assume the mantle of the story. They are not at all similar though they both have to deal with grief and loss of family members. They are not exactly friends initially though they become something like that in the end but I feel that one cannot neatly categorize their relationship and label it without losing something of it.

I love that this book takes such a frank look at the relationships between parents and children. Aline’s relationship with her father is poignant, and Aline’s growth through her changing perception of her father is skillfully handled. Death is a major theme in this novel; death and letting go of not just people who have died but of one’s own sense of self and identity. Grief is explored though not in melodramatic detail.

The magic system and the nature of magic (interestingly) is in line with contemporary considerations of magic (see my essay on fairy godmothers). The prose is masterful. Barnhill weaves a compelling novel of intrigue and danger increasing the tension in degrees until the climax is reached and the readers fall over the edge of the mountain created by the narrative.

I particularly loved the portrayal of the wolf and how it changes owners but at the same time functions to create a link between the two main characters. The novel does falter slightly in the end when there is a danger that sentiment will overwhelm the narrative but it rights itself when focus swings back to the action. The treatment of nature–the healthy respect for its more destructive abilities–is fascinating.

Also of note is the subtext where leadership is concerned. All monarchs in the novel are flawed in some important way: either they crave too much power, immortality or have been unable to ensure proper heirs and have thus failed their people. The novel definitely leans towards democracy and government than monarchy.

All said and done, The Witch’s Boy is a substantial, fairly dark, middle grade novel with crossover potential that will appeal to anyone who likes good books and good stories. Strongly recommended.

 

7 responses to “The Witch’s Boy by Kelly Barnhill: A Review

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