The Witch Boy and The Hidden Witch

The Witch Boy
by Molly Knox Ostertag
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there (Witch Boy and The Hidden Witch)!
Content: There are some intense images of violence. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

I’d been seeing this one on a LOT of the best-of 2018 lists and I realized I knew NOTHING about it (I had gotten it in, but really paid no attention to it), so I realized I needed to get this one and read it. And since it looked up K’s ally, I decided to buy both it and the sequel as well.

Aster is part of this old magical family, where the girls are all witches and the boys are all shape-shifters. But Aster, at 13, has realized that his talents lie with being a witch rather than a shape-shifter. Except, because that’s what GIRLS do and he’s obviously not a girl, he’s forbidden. Like actively. Every time they find him sneaking around trying to learn witchcraft, the women shame him and shun him. Especially since the last time a boy tried to be a witch — Aster’s grandmother’s brother — he turned into a monster and was never seen again.

(Yes, I do think this is meant to be a feminist allegory for gender roles and toxic masculinity and how silly they are. If a boy wants to be a witch, then LET HIM BE A WITCH.)

Things get complicated when Aster’s cousins — all of whom embrace the traditional male role and become shape-shifters — start disappearing. And Aster — because he’s both male and a witch — is the only one who can save them.

The story continues in The Hidden Witch; Aster’s family has (kind of sort of) accepted him as a witch and is trying to teach him, when his non-magical friend, Charlie, gets attacked by a bit of dark magic called a “Fetch”. It turns out that there’s a rogue witch in town, and the family has to figure out how to take care of them.

This one, honestly, wasn’t as good as Witch Boy, which I adored. She did wrap up the story of the grandmother’s brother, which was left hanging in the first book, but I’m not sure how much I cared about that. I did like seeing Aster use his witchcraft to help Charlie figure out where the Fetch was coming from, but it just didn’t have the larger conflict that Witch Boy had. Even so, it’s delightful series, expertly drawn (Ostertag worked on Star vs. the Forces of Evil, and her art style fits that). I adore the friendship between Aster and Charlie, and I liked how Ostertag worked in diversity without making it a huge “look at me, I’m diverse” issue.

She’s a solid graphic novelist, and someone I’m excited to see more from.

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The Wicked Deep

by Shea Ernshaw
First sentence: “Three sisters arrived in Sparrow, Oregon, in 1822 aboard a fur trading ship named the Lady Astor, which sank later that year in the harbor just beyond the cape.”
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Content: There are instances of teenage drinking and lots of talk about sex. There is also swearing, including several f-bombs. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore. 

This one a hard one to summarize: it’s a slowly unfolding tale of three sisters who were accused of being witches and drowned, of a town that’s paid for their deaths for nearly 200 years through drownings of boys each summer. It’s the story of forgiveness and sacrifice and of falling in love. It’s the story of judgement and the price paid for not being open and accepting. 

It was atmospheric, as it slowly unfolded the historical tale of the Swan sisters and the contemporary tale of Penny and Bo. I was interested enough to keep reading to the end, but once there I was left with a shrug. I think I was supposed to care about the sacrifices made, about the love story. But mostly, it was all just a big meh. I guessed the twist fairly early on, and once I got to the Big Reveal, I was left kind of shrugging: yeah, so? 

I suppose I just wanted to like this one a lot more than I actually did. 

Audio book: The Wolf Hour

by Sarah Lewis Holmes
Read by David de Vries; Thérèse Plummer
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is violence, though none of it is graphic. There are some biggish words, as well. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Magia lives on the edge of the Puszcza — a huge, dark, magical forest — with her woodcutter father, mother, and siblings. Her mother has big dreams for everyone: Magia’s sister is going to be a healer, her brother a solder. And her mother wants Magia to be a singer. Except Magia wants to be a woodcutter like her father. But, she’s a good daughter, so she goes to music lessons with Miss Grand… and gets stuck in a story. And not a happy one at that.

I really liked this play and mashing of the Red Riding Hood and Three Little Pigs fairy tales. Actually, what I think I liked was the narration by deVries and Plummer. I loved listening to this one; it had the feel of an oral tale, and I loved how deVries and Plummer interpreted the text. Their narration kept me engaged with a text that I probably would have dismissed otherwise. But, because of that, I stuck through it. And while I wondered if there would be a happy  (or even hopeful) ending because Holmes kept the tension in the story going for a lot longer than I expected, it all does resolve well. Which was a nice touch.

In the end: surprisingly good.

Cybils Reading Round-Up, Part 2

Frogkisser!
by Garth Nix
First sentence: “The scream was very loud and went on for a very long time.”
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Content: There’s really nothing “objectionable”, but it just feels… older. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, but I’m sure a fifth grader who really likes quests and/or fairy tales would enjoy it too.

Anya is a princess in a minor kingdom, whose parents have died and left her and her older sister to be raised by her stepmother (who is off doing…something) and her husband (whom Anya calls her “stepstepfather”), who is trying to take over the kingdom. So, Anya is sent on a Quest, nominally to find the ingredients to make a lip balm to turn Prince Duncan back from a frog, but ultimately, for control of her kingdom.

It’s a charming little tale; I enjoyed the fairy tale references (Snow White is a male wizard, etc.) and it was mildly funny, but honestly, it was just too long. I lost interested about 23 of the way through, and skipped to the end to find out how it all finished, and I don’t feel like I missed much. I’m sure it’s enjoyable; I just don’t have the patience for it right now.

Beyond the Doors
by David Neilsen
First sentence: “Edward Rothbaum was in a grumpy mood.”
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Content: It’s a bit odd; it’s long, but there are interior illustrations, so it’s like the publisher (what’s up Random House?!) couldn’t figure out if it was for the younger or older end of the middle grade spectrum. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

The Rothbaum’s mom has been missing for years, and then a freak fire leaves their dad in a coma. So they’re bundled off to their (previously unknown) Aunt Gladys’s house, where there are no doors and nothing to eat but cereal. And Gladys is a bit… off… as well. Through some digging, the Rothbaums discover the real secret: their grandfather discovered an ability to jump into memories, and has gotten stuck there. And it’s up to the kids to figure out how to solve the problem.

This was fun. Nothing super brilliant, but I liked the kids and the idea of memory jumping is a clever one.

A Face Like Glass
by Frances Hardinge
First sentence: “One dark season, Grandible became certain that there was something living in his domain within the cheese tunnels.”
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Content: It’s long and slow moving. So, maybe not for a reluctant reader. It’s in the Young Adult section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Neverfell is an outsider in the world of Caverna, an abomination… because you can see her emotions on her face. So, when Neverfell gets caught up in court politics, the fate of Caverna lies within her hands.

I usually like Hardinge’s books, but this one just fell flat for me. I wanted to like it, and I liked parts of it, but it was just… too long. And it didn’t hold my interest. I would put it down for days and just not care enough to pick it back up. (I would have abandoned it, except for the Cybils.) It’s not that it was badly written, or a bad story… it just didn’t hold my interest. So maybe it was more me than anything else.

Dragon’s Green
by Scarlet Thomas
First sentence: “Mrs. Breathag Hide was exactly the kind of teacher who gives children nightmares.”
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Content: There are a few scary bits. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Effie Trulove’s grandfather spent time teaching her about the magical world, and even though she’s not quite sure she believes him, it was spending time. But, he’s passed on, and suddenly Effie’s thrown into situations where she comes to realize that, yes, her grandfather wasn’t making things up: there really is magic. So with the help of her trusty new friends, she can defeat the Bad Guys (who are out to steal all the magic books), and figure out her place in the magic world.

I said, once, that silly names and magic don’t a fantasy make. And I think that holds here. The names bugged me (so very much), as did the gendering of  the friends (the boys were the Warrior and Scholar, the girls were the Witch and the Healer, though Effie was the Hero). I thought it would have more of a D&D feel, and be predictable that way, but it veered a bit from that, which was nice. It just… bugged me, in the end. I’m not sure I can really put my finger on why. But this was was most definitely not for me.

Reread: I Shall Wear Midnight

by Terry Pratchett
First sentence: “Why was it, Tiffany Aching wondered, that people liked noise so much?
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Others in the series: The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith
Content: There’s a bit more romance, and some illusions to sex (none actual), and the story’s a bit darker than the other Tiffany Aching books. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Last time I read this, seven years ago, I called it a perfect ending for a perfect series. It’s still a perfect series. But, going back and rereading this, I’ve realized that this isn’t an ending. More like a stopping place. (And I am glad The Shepherd’s Crown got published. It makes for a better ending.)

That said (follow the seven years ago link for the plot), I still loved this one. I loved that the conflict was the negative opinions of witches, the hate that is so often seen in the face of the unknown. It felt very timely. I liked that Pratchett used old lore to battle the hate (if we know and understand our history, we will better be able to fight against the dark), and having recently read Small Gods, I understood all the references to the priests of Om this time. I adore Tiffany’s practicality (and wish I could figure out how to better roll with the challenges in my life), and I love the humor. There can never be too much NacMacFeegle, and I loved the fierceness with which Jeannie (the kelda) watches over her clan.

Really, these books are such a delight to read.

Reread: Wintersmith

wintersmithby Terry Pratchett
First sentence: “When the storm came, it hit the hills like a hammer.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the Series: The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky
Content: There’s a bit of mushy love stuff, but it’s fairly understated. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

I spent the review the last time I read this talking about the characters and how they’re what really matters when reading this series. And that’s true. Tiffany Aching wouldn’t not be Tiffany without the other witches, like Nanny Ogg or Granny Weatherwax or Annagramma or Petulia, or without Roland or the Nac Mac Feegle. Or the Chalk. But, what stuck with me was not the characters (perhaps because I’m reading all these one right after another) but the plot.

Basically, Tiffany disrupts the seasons when she gets impulsive during the winter dance and joins in. The Wintersmith, the elemental who runs winter, is intrigued and decides that he needs to woo Tiffany. Which, because he’s Winter, involves a lot of ice and snow and cold weather. And because of this, spring is delayed. Tiffany has taken on the role of Summer in this dance, and has to figure out how to get out of it. Before the cold starts killing animals and people.

I loved the way Pratchett was playing with Old Stories, with mythology. I loved the way Tiffany had to take responsibility for things, even though it was impulsive and she didn’t “mean” to. This time, I enjoyed what it was about as much as the journey.

This series is just so great.

Reread: A Hat Full of Sky

hatfullofskyby Terry Pratchett
First sentence: “The Nac Mac Feegle are the most dangerous of the fairy races, particularly when drunk.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: It’s a bit complex, story-wise for the younger set, but would make a great read-aloud for ages 8 and up. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.
Others in the series: The Wee Free Men

Of course when you read The Wee Free Men, you have to follow it up with reading the rest of the series. I’ve read and reviewed this once before, nearly 8 years ago, and I don’t have much else to add. Except that much of what I remember about Tiffany Aching and this series comes from this book. The bit about being afraid of depths. The definition of what a witch is. The encounter with Death. It’s all here. This is the one (aside from the Nac Mac Feegle, which really shine in the first book) that has stayed with me all these years.

Which makes me wonder: what will I think of the others this time around?