As promised, more Latinx middle grade fantasy! Columbian-American debut author Alex Aster delivers a refreshingly new take on the epic fantasy quest, inspired by her abuela’s stories. I still wish that KidLitCon 2020 had happened, where I would have been able to meet Alex!
Curse of the Night Witch. Emblem Island 1 by Alex Aster. Sourcebooks Young Readers, 2020. ISBN 978-1492697206. Read from library copy.
On Emblem Island, everyone is born with a birthmark that reveals their true talent and a lifeline that shows the course of their lives, though these can change. 12-year-old Tor Luna does not like either of his marks – not the purple lines around his wrists that show that he is destined to be a leader like his mother when he’d rather be under the water, and not the smoothness of the lifeline that shows he’s destined for a life of boring predictability. Also, as one of the only two kids with leader emblems, he’s stuck in class every day with know-it-all Melda, who is better at all of it than he is. There’s also some jealousy of his little sister Rosa, whose singing emblem gives her obvious joy as well as a contribution to the life of the community.
When a black, blinking eye shows up on his wrist instead and his lifeline shortens to just a week, it’s not immediately clear if it’s because he made a ceremonial wish for a new emblem or because he swam down to a shipwreck rumored to be cursed. Either way, in short order the curse has spread to both his best friend, far-seeing and always hungry Engle, as well as to Melda. The curse looks so much like that described in the forbidden tales in the adult version of The Book of Cuentos that the kids are convinced it’s from the legendary, probably mythical Night Witch. But if the curse is real – and it clearly is – than maybe the stories aren’t as mythical as they thought. The trio set out to find the Night Witch with only a week and a copy of The Book of Cuentos to guide them, following a path that will lead them to every creature and obstacle in the book – literally.
I really appreciated the big adventure starring a kid who – okay, maybe he had the marks of a leader, but he was doing everything he could to avoid being a leader and wound up with his quest more because of his own bad choices than because of a great prophecy. I also love traditional folk tales, and enjoyed reading the stories from The Book of Cuentos that come between chapters, setting up the adventures to come. Beyond the adventure, there are some good thoughts about friendship (the story starting off with a Harry-Ron-Hermione kind of friendship vibe), equity, and the power of choice. The ending sets up another story, and I’m curious to see what comes next!
This book has been nominated for the Cybils award. This review reflects my opinion, not that of the Cybils committee.