I was fortunate enough to read both a new translation of the classic Japanese fantasy book and a recent book inspired by in the same week. There is lots of charming witchy fun to be had in both of these!
Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono. Translated by Emily Balistrieri and read by Kim Mai Guest. Delacorte, 2020. (Original Japanese 1985) ISBN 978-1984896667. ASIN B085LQ7T5N. Listened to audiobook on Libby.
Kiki has been waffling on whether or not she wants to do the apprenticeship she needs to do to be a professional witch like her mother, but finally does. In this era of waning magic, most witches have only one strong skill. Kiki’s is flying – much less useful than her mother’s sneeze medicine.
Despite having grown up in a tiny village, Kiki and her black cat Jiji decide to settle in the bigger city of Kikoro, made welcome and given a place to stay by a kind baker, Osono. Slowly, Kiki decides on a business, builds a customer base, and solves problems, even making some friends along the way. The author was inspired partly by European fantasy stories, so the setting is Europe through a Japanese lens.
The book is much less streamlined than the movie, more linked stories of how Kiki can solve a tricky delivery problem like taking forgotten instruments out of a speeding express train or save the day by flying. Kiki feels a very young twelve, and her friends are also less developed characters here. There are still some evocative moments, like the silver bells hanging in the tree-tops of Kiki’s home village, so that she could ring for help when she got stuck in the top as a small child. While I appreciate more of plot arc and well-developed supporting characters myself, I can really see this shining as a bedtime read-aloud book for younger kids, along the lines of Mary Poppins or Pippi Longstocking, where children can develop a love for reading and fantasy books that will carry over as they grow older.
Eva Evergreen, Semi-Magical Witch by Julie Abe. Little, Brown, 2020. ISBN 978-0316493888. Read from library copy.
This new series starter is a fresh, modern take on Kiki. Eva Evergreen is the daughter of one of the only two Grand Master witches in the kingdom. She may have only a pinch of magic and a history of her spells going poorly, like producing cabbages instead of flowers, but she’s determined to do the month-long assignment to a city or village without a witch that she needs to officially move from Apprentice to Novice witch.
But Grand Master Grottel, uncle of the only other apprentice, doesn’t want her to try and only begrudgingly gives her the magical boat ticket that will guide her to her destination.
Eva’s other big weaknesses are that she can barely fly a broom, and that she falls asleep after using too much of her magic. This she does on the boat after healing a man hurt by the magical flamefoxes he’s transporting. When she wakes up at the end of the line, her ticket is ash. She’s determined to make the port city of Auteri her home, even if it might not have been the one her ticket should have directed her to. Fortunately, she’s managed to impress one of the boat crew members, Rin, who is native to Auteri and has enough connections to get her set up with the abandoned witch’s cottage and a vacant lot to use as a storefront for her semi-magical repair shop.
While Eva is on her own shorter assignment, Mayor Taira of Auteri isn’t pleased to have her – they’ve been hit especially hard by magical storms and had requested a much higher level witch or wizard to help the city prepare defenses for the one that’s expected in a few months. She agrees to sign Eva’s paperwork only if Eva can really come up with a way to protect Auteri. And though the problem seems way out of Eva’s league, she has little choice but to agree, drawing her into issues that affect the entire kingdom.
In this story, Eva’s friends have much more complex stories of their own, including Rin; Davy who works in the confectionary next door to Eva’s shop; and Charlotte, one of the older girls still at the orphanage on the other side, who stands out as a foreigner because of her lighter hair and skin. The flamefox kit who adopts her is pretty darn adorable, too. Though this is an invented fantasy world with a tech level that feels about right for a century ago, there are lots of recognizably Japanese elements, including the delicious treats that Eva’s baker father sends her. I really appreciated, too, that the queen of the kingdom is elected to the position, and this particular queen grew up working on a farm. The personal and the political intertwine very nicely here, and the ending clearly points to a sequel in the works.
I usually only read print books at very specific times of day – but I’d really wanted to read this book and it didn’t come to the top of my stack until the day it was due, when I was working the evening shift. Dear reader, I sat down on the sofa in the morning near the kids doing their remote school at the table and read until I was done. I’m so glad I did!
Readers looking for more like this might also enjoy The Apprentice Witch by James Nichols.
These books have been nominated for the Cybils award. This review reflects my opinion, not that of the Cybils committee.