By Kelly Barnhill
Available now from Algonquin Young Readers
Ned and his twin brother build a raft, but it is not seaworthy, and Tam dies. Ned survives only through Tam's soul and his mother's magic. But the villagers are convinced the wrong boy lived, especially because the experience left Ned without words. Meanwhile, practical Áine lives in the forest with her bandit father, who is being overtaken by a strange force.
THE WITCH'S BOY is a lovely book. Ned and Áine are both hugely likeable in different ways. Ned has had to struggle with himself his whole life, and struggling with an external force for once (magic) helps him gain better control of himself. Áine is super practical (it bears mentioning again), but hurt by her father abandoning her for greed. She's cold and reluctant to trust, but a good person to have on one's side. I quite enjoyed that their parents were a crucial part of the story. Ned's father and Áine's mother aren't mentioned much, but do have actual personalities. The Bandit King and Sister Witch are much bigger figures. Especially Sister Witch, whose moment of weakness sets most of the plot in motion. (But how could she let her other child die too?)
The mythology of the world is very interesting. There are nine Stones, three sources of magic - most gone from the world - , and wolves. There's a little provincial kingdom with a tough and benevolent queen, and a bigger, more worldly kingdom with a young tyrant. It all comes together quite smoothly, each bit having its place in a tale about the importance of words and of firmly doing good. And, well, I was a huge fan of the magic having a personality and voice of its own. The concept of it was not just interesting, but well executed.
There's a speech at the end that's a touch too didactic for me, but I think it is well suited to the middle grade age group. It's not so didactic as to be condescending. Much of the rest of the book isn't particularly subtle, but it is not like being hit over the head with the message either. It is just every present. THE WITCH'S BOY isn't quite a fairytale, but it has a bit of that atmosphere, with few extraneous details, a foreboding tone, and a logic that works more strongly for the story than the real world.
THE WITCH'S BOY is a terrific little fantasy. The violence is non graphic and most of the tyrant's cruelties are just hinted at, so I think this will appeal to the younger MG crowd as well as the older. The length and complexity do push it more towards the older side.