I was hearing a lot of buzz about this book, so I was very excited to be approved for a digital ARC for it through Edelweiss.
The Witch’s Boy by Kelly Barnhill. Algonquin Press, 2014.
Once upon a time, in a tiny kingdom by the sea, past the impassable mountains and forest, there were twin boys. One of them was good at everything and loved by all, while the other was awkward and struggled to keep up. When they were seven, they built a raft to go down the river. But they were only seven – the raft broke, and both boys were tumbled down the river. The talented, best-loved twin died, while the other one lived – just barely, as his mother, the town witch, had to use her magic to keep him alive. Now Ned goes around not even able to talk, crippled by the magic that kept him alive and the knowledge that he is the wrong boy.
And then his mother leaves to help the Queen and the Bandit King comes to steal the witch’s magic, which lives in a jar in their house. Ned may be the wrong boy, but he is the only one. He must carry the magic inside himself to save it, and the magic is opinionated and made up of many conflicting voices. Meanwhile, Aine, the Bandit King’s daughter, recognizes that her father is about to do something unforgiveable and sets out, in her practical way, to do something about it. She’s not the sentimental type, and she doesn’t really want to help Ned or to be friends with him – but she will do what she must.
All of this is told with a lyrical, timeless style and a narrator that talks to the reader once in a while. For me, this adds delightfully to the slightly old-fashioned feeling, though I know many people who don’t appreciate this at all. I really enjoyed both dreamy Ned and practical Aine, who both start and end in believable places as character while running counter to gender expectations. The magic, sentient in its own right, is really cool, while still illustration beautifully the dangers inherent in power. I also really enjoyed the adult characters, involved in the plot in their own right while leaving plenty of room for the kids to be instrumental in the story. At 384 pages, it’s longer than my son would be willing to read to himself. I read this over a more extended period than usual, just once or twice a week when I was taking my kids to activities, which leaves me a little unsure of the pacing. It felt just perfect to me every time I read it, but in retrospect it seems like what feels perfect to me might be a little slow for readers who like lots of action in their stories. It was, however, just about perfect for me, and I recommend it highly to fans of fantasy with a fairy tale feel.