“A lightning bolt erupted from the cloud and aimed directly at Ned’s heart. He couldn’t cry out. He couldn’t even move. He could just feel the magic sink into his skin and spread itself over every inch of him, bubbling and slithering and cutting deep, until he didn’t know where the magic stopped and he began.”
When Ned and his identical twin brother tumble from their raft into a raging, bewitched river, only Ned survives. Villagers are convinced the wrong boy lived. Sure enough, Ned grows up weak and slow, and stays as much as possible within the safe boundaries of his family’s cottage and yard. But when a 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.
In the meantime, in another kingdom across the forest that borders Ned’s village lives Áine, the resourceful and pragmatic 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.” But when Áine 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?
With a deft hand, acclaimed author Kelly Barnhill takes classic fairy tale elements–speaking stones, a friendly wolf, and a spoiled young king–and weaves them into a richly detailed narrative that explores good and evil, love and hate, magic, and the power of friendship.
So that’s three for three for Kelly Barnhill, meaning I’ll devour anything she writes next. For those of you who aren’t familiar with her, Barnhill is an extremely talented writer who writes wonderful middle grade fantasy novels that keep getting better.
I fell in love with The Witch’s Boy from the first chapter and each word after that served to pull me deeper into the story. And what a story. Magic, witches that aren’t witches, wolves, talking stones, bandits, kings and queens; a story with all the classic fantasy elements that is unique at the same time. For the magic is a character itself and nothing is as it seems. It is rich and atmospheric and tastes of the mountains and forests and of course the sea. The sea which is the ultimate symbol of hope for Ned and Áine, it is their goal, their hopeful future.
Right off the bat we are hit with serious and dark topics such as loss, guilt, sacrifice and bullying. Ned is the “wrong boy” simply because he lived. He is called witless and is mocked for his stutter and dyslexia. He has no friends. Even his father can’t look him in the eye. Yet, Ned is an intelligent, creative, brave and caring boy who just wants to lead a normal life. Áine is a remarkably strong young lady; feisty and practical. She’s a girl of the forest, self sufficient and independent. She too is affected by loss; her mother passed away when she was young, and her father is unreliable. The friendship that forms between the two is highly complex and simply wonderful to watch blossom.
The novel is set on the brink of war. Kingdom’s are about to clash. Old beings are awaking. Change is eminent. There is a sense of urgency, a tense undercurrent to the plot. Cliffhangers abound and the narration is constantly shifting. It all makes for a very engrossing read. You know tough choices will have to be made yet never know what will be coming just around the corner. Also, the writing is sublime.
A mature, layered story, The Witch’s Boy is a delight to read. Highly recommended.