First in a series
By Virginia Boecker
Available now from Little, Brown BFYR (Hachette)
When I finished the first few chapters of THE WITCH HUNTER, I was very worried about how I would ever convince myself to finish this novel. Elizabeth Grey is supposedly one of the king's best witch hunters, despite being a young girl, but the book opens with her completely messing up a mission. Apparently she's missed up several missions in a row. Also, she can't stop thinking about how much she's into her friend Caleb. It's pretty dire.
Things shortly improve with a very dark reveal (minor spoilers): Elizabeth is distracted because she's the king's unwilling mistress. This comes out because her herbs to prevent birth control are found, which means she gets sentenced as a witch: one of the very people she hunted. Fortunately, she gets rescued because an actual group of people with magic received a prophecy that she's the only one who can help him.
There are parts of THE WITCH HUNTER that I really enjoyed. The crew that Elizabeth falls in with have a variety of unique, interesting personalities. I particularly liked Fifer, the apprentice witch who clashes with Elizabeth and has an incredibly creepy yet fascinating romance of her own. I liked that Elizabeth did have something to help them out, but that she didn't turn out to have some super special awesome power.
I thought the romance element was a bit weak. The love triangle fortunately dies an ignominious death, but that doesn't make the new romance that much more convincing. Elizabeth falls for John, a healer. The two of them can't keep their eyes off of each other. It wasn't terrible, but I didn't feel any depth or spark to it.
I also had some issues with Elizabeth's changing view on witches. As she comes to spend more time with them, she starts to see them as real people and understand that Blackwell, her master, had his own agenda and maybe she wasn't doing what was best for her country. It's a believable character arc. Yet she never really expresses any remorse that she helped lead innocent people to their deaths. I would expect that to carry a heavy toll.
THE WITCH HUNTER was much better than I expected from the opening. It has a brisk plot, a complex protagonist, and subverted some of my expectations from years of reading paranormal YA. But it definitely felt like a debut novel, and didn't explore some of the darker implications of the setting as thoroughly as it could. Hopefully Virginia Boecker will become a stronger author with the sequels.