Kelly Barnhill – The Witch’s Boy

kellybarnhill-thewitchsboyWhen Ned and his identical twin brother tumble from their raft into a raging river, only Ned survives. Villagers are convinced the wrong boy lived. But when the Bandit King comes to steal the magic that Ned’s mother, a witch, is meant to protect, it’s Ned who safeguards the magic and summons the strength to protect his family and community.

Meanwhile, across the forest lives Áine, the daughter of the Bandit King. She is haunted by her mother’s last words to her: “The wrong boy will save your life and you will save his.” When Áine’s and Ned’s paths cross, can they trust each other long enough to make their way through the treacherous woods and stop the war about to boil over between their two kingdoms?

First of all before I start talking about this book, I just want to say: That cover, you guys! I really love that cover and if anything, it was that cover that first drew me to give Kelly Barnhill’s The Witch’s Boy a closer look. I loved the play with the big shadows and those tiny little figures, and the sense that they were at the edge of the world. It is very fitting to the setting of the book and the villagers’ belief that there is nothing beyond the forest-clad mountains. But mostly it just made for an arresting visual. And all this was even before I read the blurb. When I opened the book and started reading I was sold, as Kelly Barnhill managed to break my heart twice in the span of two chapters, which meant I was in for a treat. 

The story revolves around Ned and Áine, with several other points of view woven through their stories. Of these further points of views I especially loved that of Ned’s mother and that of the Speaking Stones. I really loved Ned and Áine. The way Barnhill developed their characters and the growing bond between them was wonderful. I loved the way they were juxtaposed, with Ned trusting Áine and the young wolf relatively quickly and Áine’s only grudgingly won trust. Ned was so sweet and earnest, and his silence was wonderfully portrayed. The question is whether his keeping mum is a physical consequence of his near-drowning of is a result of psychological trauma. In either case, his stuttering was treated so convincingly, such as the fact that it was often self-reinforcing; the harder it is for Ned to speak, the more stressed he becomes, the harder it becomes to speak. Áine is brilliant. Resourceful, tough, capable, and clever, I loved how hard she tried to save those she loves. And she’s also clearly described as a person of colour, with black hair and eyes and dark skin. As such, I’d count this book as one to add to the diverse books column.

Of the adults, my favourite was Sister Witch. Oh Sister Witch, how much I loved her. Her actions, which set in motion much of the story and are somewhat an explanation for the wrong boy having survived, where so convincing and I could so completely empathise. Her dilemma in the second chapter of the book was just heart-breaking. I love the strength she displayed in the latter half of the book when she travels to the capital to petition the queen. Her magic is fascinating too. The idea of the magic as something that needed to be contained and tamed, as something that needed to be both treated with respect and coerced, was fascinating and I loved its history within Ned’s family. Its origins and nature and its links to the Speaking Stones was awesome and I loved the manifestation of its power in Ned when he takes the magic into himself to keep it safe. The fact that it showed up as writing on his skin and that it talked to him – and with an attitude as well – was very well conceived.

The driving force at the core of the narrative is love. Love is what causes Sister Witch to save Ned by any means necessary, love is what motivates Áine to try and save her father even when he is beyond redemption, and in a way even The Bandit King was driven by love. Or perhaps more accurately the loss of the person he loved so fiercely that her death broke him. Ned’s dad just broke my heart. So much of his actions and behaviour are caused by grief, love and guilt. He can’t forgive himself for not being able to save both his boys and loving Ned is double-edged for him, because every day looking at Ned means remembering he failed the boy that looked so much like him.

I loved Kelly Barnhill’s latest. The Witch’s Boy is a middle grade novel, but it’s certainly one that can be enjoyed by older readers as well. It’s also a book that I can’t wait to share with my girls when they are a bit older and understand English more fully than just the occasional word (or if the book is translated to Dutch). A beautifully written, lyrical, and subversive fairytale, The Witch’s Boy is a story about love, grief, letting go and forgiveness. And it’s one that will almost certainly feature on one of my ‘favourites for 2014’-lists.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.


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