Curse of the Night Witch by Alex Aster

Curse of the Night Witch


Goodreads: Curse of the Night Witch
Series: Emblem Island #1
Age Category: Middle Grade
Published: 2020


On Emblem Island, most people are born with a mark that gives them special powers–anything from breathing underwater to singing to baking.  Twelve-year-old Tor has a leadership emblem, just like his mother, but wishes it away one fateful night.  He awakes to find a curse on his skin instead, the mark of the Night Witch, a terrifying creature of legend.  Now, Tor must embark on a quest with his friend Engle and his annoying classmate Melda in order to find the witch and break the curse.  Inspired by Colombian folklore.

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Curse of the Night Witch is obviously a debut novel, one that is crammed full of action and adventure, but sometimes stumbles with pacing, plot inconsistencies, and too-obvious parallels to other fantasy works.  Likely, however, the target audience of tweens will not notice or mind, instead focusing on all the marvels of Emblem Island.  While more seasoned readers might be tempted to point out some of the flaws, younger readers will likely find this one to be a new fantasy favorite.

Curse of the Night Witch will no doubt appeal to avid readers because of how steeped in story it is.  The book is interspersed with tales from folklore, the stories that Tor and his friends grew up hearing from the Book of Cuentos each night–”The Weeping Woman,” “The Cave of Cosas,”  “The Lake of Bones, and more.  The stories grow increasingly more disturbing the closer the protagonists get to the Night Witch.  And this is done on purpose; the author knowingly weaves the stories into the fabric of Tor’s life.  He, in fact, uses the Book as a guide to get him to the Night Witches realm.  Thus, anyone who believes in the power of story to guide and transform lives will love the importance given to stories here.

At times, however, Curse of the Night Witch veers a little too closely to other stories told before.  Echoes of The Hobbit, for example,  are seen in an encounter with cave trolls, as well as in a (superfluous) statue carried around by Engle–the statue glows blue when danger is near.  The protagonists, meanwhile, feel extremely reminiscent of Harry Potter.  Tor is the Chosen One (with a bit of a bland personality and no real reason readers should believe he deserves to be the leader).  Engle is the loyal friend, who is also comic relief (mostly because he eats too much).  And Melda is the annoying overachieving girl at school, who soon reveals herself to be capable, brave, and loyal–and Tor and Engle’s new inseparable best friend.  I also could not stop thinking about this book as “My Little Pony, but with humans,” which may or may not be fair.

Many readers will not be bothered by such comparisons, however, or may find them to be fun allusions.  The story itself, though, still has some awkward flaws.  It has too much action, for instance, leading most episodes to be over before they begin.  In about a week or two, the trio manage to cross an entire island, going from their village to the capital to the mountains to the jungle to the desert to the frozen world to a place called the Shadows.  Often what happens in each place is very quick–for instance, they are in danger, but a god-like voice or a bird or a boy miraculously saves them at just the last minute.  Or they endanger an entire village, but quickly save it again by lighting some torches and leaving.  It is so quick that readers can not really fall in love with the places visited, or feel like any of the characters met are memorable.

Then, too, there are the plot inconsistencies.  For example, the capital is supposedly led by a tyrant queen who can force everyone to do her will.  It is guarded fearfully so no one can threaten her.  Except the trio get let in the gate without being questioned by the knights who are bored.  And the queen is more like a spoiled child than a tyrant.  Then there are the giantesses who are supposed to be the kind, wise protectors of humanity.  They see the protagonists from afar, shoot at them with arrows, tie them up as captives, and bring them to their camp.  Because they are so wise and loving they fear children with no reason and cannot be bothered to ask them questions before shooting at them?  And then there are the small things, like when Tor picks up a golden watch in an abandoned village, but a few pages later cannot tell the time because he has no watch.  Or the fact that jewels are so common on Emblem Island (I think they grow on plants?), they are eaten in cakes in small villages–but also sometimes thieves steal jewels because they are greedy and want to be wealthy. (Actually, the beginning of the book is really self-indulgent with all the, “Oh, look at how magical it is here!  Sapphires are eaten as cakes!  The crabs in the ocean have legs like tree trunks!”  But I digress.)  A bit of editing would have been appreciated.

I suspect many readers will not mind all this, however.  The book is stuffed full of magical creatures and places.  Readers who just want to escape into an adventure story will certainly find themselves on a whirlwind ride that includes everything from tornado-causing gemstones to man-eating snakes to wish gods to abominable snow monsters.  There is little time to stop to think if it all makes sense–the plot just keeps going.

3 Stars

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