Which Witch? by Eva Ibbotson

Which WitchInformation

Goodreads: Which Witch?
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1979

Official Summary

Arriman the Awful, feared Wizard of the North, has decided to marry. But his wife must be a witch of the darkest powers . . .

A sorcery competition is held to discover which witch is the most potent and fiendish, and glamorous Madame Olympia conjures up a thousand plague-bearing rats Belladonna, the white witch, desperately wants to be a wicked enchantress, but her magic produces flowers instead of snakes. How can she become more devilish than all the other witches?


I’ve heard a lot of great things about Eva Ibbotson.  Lauren Magaziner’s The Only Thing Worse Than Witches was compared to her works when it debuted in 2014.  My best friend from college names Ibbotson as one of her favorite childhood authors.  Everyone groups Ibbotson with Roald Dahl.  So although I was really behind trying to jump on the bandwagon, I was really excited to give this novel a try.  Unfortunately, Which Witch? didn’t live up to all the hype.

From the beginning, the novel seemed dated, and that’s not usually something I notice about books, particularly fantasy.  However, everything from the general worldview (women need to marry men to support them; only pretty blonde women are worth marrying) to the politically incorrect jokes made me mildly uncomfortable about the whole experience.  If this book were sent out on query today, I have large doubts it would find a publisher.  I’m not surprised it continues to come out in new editions since Ibbotson has such a great reputation, but I am surprised I seem to be the only one on Goodreads who thought the tone of the book is off since I don’t consider myself particularly sensitive to these things.

Beyond that, the plot of the novel doesn’t make much sense.  Apparently there’s a need for evil and nasty things in the world, so the world’s most evil wizard must find an evil successor before retiring.  I could buy this if the book gave out some line about needing balance, needing both the good and the bad, etc., but it doesn’t.  We’re just supposed to accept the premise that someone has to increase evil in the world.  Next, white witch Belladonna wants to be evil but can’t be.  This is baffling, since one would probably think the desire to be an awful person would be the faster path to becoming an evil person.  Finally, the evil wizard and Belladonna fall in love based on appearances when they know nothing else about each other.  Readers are supposed to root for this incompatible and foundationless relationship.

Needless to say, my feelings about the book are lukewarm.  It does have some quirky moments and some dark ones that have caused readers to make the connection to Roald Dahl.  However, the character were too much like caricatures, the plot made no sense, and some of the views really are dated.  Though her other books are probably different, I don’t think I’ll be reading more Ibbotson for a while.

For alternative reading recommendations, try Ursula Vernon’s Castle Hangnail (for a fun take on the theme of an “evil” witch trying to be just evil enough) or Witch Wars by Sibeal Pounder (for a different type of witch reality show competition).

2 stars Briana

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