Witchlings by Claribel A. Ortega

Witchlings

Information

Goodreads: Witchlings
Series: None (yet)
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source:
 Library
Published: 2022

Summary

Every year, the twelve-year-old witches of Ravenskill participate in the Black Moon Ceremony to be sorted into covens. Seven longs to be placed in House Hyacinth with her best friend Poppy, but instead is selected to be leftover, a Spare, meaning that not only will she never come into her full powers, but that she will be treated as a second-class citizen forever, doomed to experience poverty as an abused servant to the wealthy witches on the Hill and shunned by society at large. Worse still, because she does not accept her fate, her coven’s circle will not seal, meaning that she will actually lose all her powers forever! Desperate, Seven invokes the Impossible Task, giving her and her two new Spare partners 21 days to fell a monster and keep their powers, or be cursed to live the rest of their lives as toads.

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Review

Witchlings by Claribel A. Ortega attempts to hit all the right notes in a middle grade fantasy by providing the usual friendship drama plot line, lots of magical creatures, and plenty of action. Personally, however, I found the book to be reminiscent of other current middle grade titles, while not providing anything extra or special. Additionally, the characters are flat, the worldbuilding weak, and the plot just a little too convoluted to make sense. I really, really wanted to love Witchlings, but this is not the book for me–though I can see it appealing to a tween audience who has less familiarity with other similar offerings out there.

Though fantasy books often use the same elements, I find that the characters in a book can often be what makes a story feel special. How the characters react to their circumstances and how they support (or do not support) each other allows variations on old plot lines such as the one in Witchlings–a monster is on the loose killing town dwellers, but political corruption prevents action. Unfortunately, however, the characters in Witchlings feel just a bit bland. Seven is the protagonist who thinks she knows everything and gets to be the leader and have special powers, even though her teammates Valley and Thorn arguably contribute more equipment, knowledge, and emotional sensitivity than Seven ever does. Valley is the bully-turned-BFF (she was just misunderstood because she has her own issues at home), and Thorn is the timid new girl who turns brave through the power of friendship. They are cute together, but they do read kind of like cookie-cutter characters for the ideal MG fantasy adventure.

Then there is the worldbuilding, which is woefully under-developed. Seven seems to live in an all-witch world where there is an alliance of twelve magical cities and they are surrounded by the Cursed Forest. But she also has a toad named Edgar Allan Toad, suggesting that her world is somehow overlaid on top of ours. And later she references that humans live in the “humdrum” and pulls out her phone to text. How do humans and witches co-exist? I have no idea.

The whole idea of Spares also seems under-developed, and present just to include a Message about inclusivity. The premise is that each year three twelve-year-old witches are selected, not to enter a prestigious coven where they get to train together and network with past coven members, but instead to be Spares, forbidden from doing high-level magic, excluded from all jobs except sewage clean-up and servitude to abusive rich people, and shunned by townsfolk who will not allow them to enter certain shops or have good seats at sports events.

There is no clear reason for this. The Spares are not bad at magic–they are not prohibited from using it for alleged safety reasons. It seems like the town really just wanted a caste system where they could select random children every year to be doomed to work for rich people for pennies. And everyone goes along with it! Even the “good” people like Seven’s parents do not question the system or suggest that donations be made to starving Spares who cannot get a job. They just bring their children every year to be selected to be social outcasts at the whim of the town leader, a woman depicted by the book as kind, loving, and wise!

Seven’s parents, and those of her friends, also notably do nothing to intervene in the fate of their children. After Seven invokes the clause of the impossible task, meaning she, Valley, and Thorn have only three weeks to fell a Nightbeast or be turned into toads forever, Seven’s parents just vaguely say they are always there for her, then go about their lives. The book tries to pretend that the impossible task will not suffer outside intervention, but the town leader intervenes spectacularly at one point and nothing happens. So why can’t Seven’s parents offer her a ride to the library, at the very least? Or suggest that she not waste some of her precious 21 days doing stuff like taking off to attend a toad race?? Or maybe just say that they will not cast her into the street to die in poverty now that she is a Spare? Parental care is almost completely lacking in this book, but it is strange specifically because the book seems to want readers to think that Seven’s parents and Thorn’s parents are among the good ones.

If readers can get past the bland characters and the half-hearted worldbuilding, there is a wild ride of a story somewhere in here. Spells fly around and expeditions are made into the Cursed Forest, and animals talk. Readers who enjoy fantasy worlds but do not care particularly if those worlds make sense or are developed meaningfully may find that trying to figure out just what on earth is happening in this book is enough to keep them reading. Ultimately, Witchlings is a book that relies on its overstuffed plot to keep readers from thinking too hard about everything else going on. And some readers may not mind that.

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3 Stars

Manu by Kelly Fernandez

Manu

Information

Goodreads: Manu
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Publication Date: 2021

Summary

Manu is the resident troublemaker at an all-girls’ academy for witches, until the day a curse makes her lose her magical powers. Distraught at the idea of being without magic, Manu summons a demon to restore her powers. But Manu cannot control her too-strong magic and soon her presence endangers not only the academy but also the nearby town.

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Review

Manu by Kelly Fernandez joins a spate of middle grade graphic novels about witches that focus on changing friendships and recognition of one’s sexual identity. While the setting is novel–a girl’s school where apparently Catholic nuns teach witchcraft and pray to the saints–not much about the rest of the book stands out. Manu is a solid and a serviceable book, but not one I would recommend above its competition.

Readers, I suspect, will have varying reactions to Manu, based on sympathetic they are towards annoying characters. Though the storyline tries valiantly to make readers feel bad for Manu because the other students find her obnoxious, the reality is that Manu is obnoxious. And it is not just that she skips class and has trouble with authority. Manu repeatedly pulls “pranks” that end up causing physical injury to people and that her classmates are then obligated to clean up–which makes them feel like they are being punished for Manu’s crimes. The story keeps reminding readers that Manu is an orphan, an outsider–but no one in the story ever brings that up as an issue, until they reach a breaking point and are trying to explain Manu’s bad behavior. If Manu would stop hurting people, they undoubtedly would have no problem with her mysterious background. The students and townspeople are not exclusive or small-minded so much as they are fed up.

All this culminates with Manu making a pretty bad life decision by anyone’s standards–calling up an evil spirit to give her magical powers–leading to an epic showdown in which the sisters and her friend Josefina once again must clean up Manu’s mess. But the story ends with a feel-good message of acceptance of Manu (despite a shocking revelation about her past) and a hint at romance for Manu in the future. Probably Manu deserves none of this, but maybe that is the point. The love others have for her is unconditional.

The elements of the story will be nothing new to readers who are familiar with the current offerings of the middle grade graphic novel market. There is nothing that really makes Manu stand out or that would make it any sort of must-read for fans of the genre. It is a solid book, however, and for many that will be enough.

3 Stars

Hooky by Miriam Bonastre Tur

Hooky

Information

Goodreads: Hooky
Series: Hooky #1 (implied by ending)
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

When twins Dani and Dorian miss the bus to school, they head to their aunt’s house, hoping she will teach them magic instead. But it seems like their aunt might be in league with some witches intent on reviving an old war between magic workers and the non-magical. So the twins go on the run once again. With a group of friends, they will have to figure out what the witches are up to–and what role they want to play in the approaching conflict.

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Review

Hooky by Miriam Bonastre Tur begins a little rough–perhaps because it started as a web comic and the conventions for setting up background and characterization may be different. However, soon the story hits its stride, bringing together a lovable (and comedic) cast of characters for an exciting magical adventure. Though I initially thought of DNFing the story, by the end I was hoping for the sequel.

The start of Hooky admittedly had me baffled due to a lack of exposition. It begins in media res, with twins Dani and Dorian missing the bus to magical school, saying something about having to hide their identity as witches (even though Dani’s openly flying through the street), and then wandering off to their (obviously evil) aunt’s house, where they unquestioningly do her bidding–down to taking some hapless young man to a secret prison where (for unknown reasons) Dorian attempts to steal a dragon, leading the twins to be branded traitors (why? who knows!). It’s all kind of frenetic, which is compounded by Dani’s (and later other characters’) peppy personalities–illustrated by a lot of enthusiastic yelling and popping up with big grins. The story does not really seem to know where it is going at this point, only that it needs to keep adding exciting scenes (missed bus! evil aunt! stolen dragon!) to keep readers coming back for the next installment.

At some point, however, the story calms down and the background starts to get fleshed out a little more (even though it’s honestly still confusing and even seemingly self-contradictory). What really helps is that the story gets a main goal around which the other events can kind of cluster. Dani and Dorian have heard about a gathering of witches dedicated to taking back the kingdom from the non-magic folk and they want to check it out–whether to join or resist is still up in the air. Their friends, yes, have their own problems, like finding a lost prince and trying to reverse a spell gone awry, but the sense is that finally the story has some sort of plot that is driving the narrative. And it’s a relief.

By the end of the book, I was finally invested in the characters and interested to know what they might do next. The beginning is rough, yes, but the writing and the structure improves–and it can improve still further! The ending leaves room for a sequel and I hope that we get one!

3 Stars

Garlic and the Vampire by Bree Paulsen

Garlic and the Vampire

Information

Goodreads: Garlic and the Vampire
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

When a vampire moves into the castle in the woods, Garlic’s friends convince her that only she can confront the threat.

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Review

Garlic and the Vampire is a short graphic novel for the lower middle grade crowd. It follows Garlic (a sentient garlic bulb) when her fellow vegetables volunteer her to confront the vampire who has moved in across the way. Garlic lacks self-esteem and is hesitant and shy, so the thought of having to defeat an evil monster frightens her. However, this is a children’s story so, of course, in the end, mistaken assumptions are corrected and friendship triumphs. There is nothing particularly new or notable about the tale or its message, but the sentient vegetables make the story intriguing if only because readers will have a lot of questions about how sentient vegetables work.

The story here offers nothing fresh; readers know going in that Garlic and the vampire must become friends. And, because the book is so short, not even the “journey” to that friendship proves worth mentioning. Essentially, Garlic just walks up to the vampire’s door, and the vampire introduces himself. He also clarifies that he only snacks on the local wildlife sometimes and that mostly drinks juice. Crisis averted in the span of about two pages. There is zero sense of drama or suspense.

What really interested me about the book is the sentient vegetables. The story opens with the titular Garlic running to the farmer’s market to sell…garlic. Her friend Carrot sells carrots. Tomato sells tomatoes. And so on. Even after the story explains that Garlic and her friends are magical vegetables that have been given life by a witch, it seems more than a little weird. How do the vegetables feel about growing vegetables for other people to eat? Even if those vegetables are (hopefully) not alive? Some readers may find this book cute and winning with its talking vegetables and message of friendship, but the more one thinks about it, the darker the book seems to be.

I read this book in about 15 minutes, so I would not say it is a waste of time to pick it up. I just do not find the book remarkable. There are plenty of stories about unlikely friendships out there, and some of them will likely tug at the heartstrings in the way this one does not. Still, maybe the target audience will enjoy this one more than I.

3 Stars

The Okay Witch and the Hungry Shadow by Emma Steinkellner

The Okay Witch and the Hungry Shadow

Information

Goodreads: The Okay Witch and the Hungry Shadow
Series: Okay Witch #2
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

Now a witch, Moth Hush has no hope that things at school will get any better. Her mom will still let her learn only small spells, and she is not allowed to use magic to make the school bullies stop. Then Moth finds a powerful charm that promises to make her cool and popular. There may be a cost involved, but it is nothing Moth can’t handle, right?

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Review

The Okay Witch and the Hungry Shadow is a powerful, and empathetic, follow-up to The Okay Witch. Now practicing as a witch with the blessing of her mother, Moth hopes that she can use her powers to make her life at school better. But her friend Charlie and the grown-ups around her just keep telling her to ignore the bullies and to accept herself as she is. For Moth, that is not good enough. So she steals a charm that promises to make her more popular. The result, as readers might expect, instead threatens to erase Moth completely. The Okay Witch and the Hungry Shadow is a beautiful story about learning to love one’s self, with the support of friends and family along the way.

Stories about accepting one’s self and learning to appreciate one’s friends are common for middle grade, but The Okay Witch and the Hungry Shadow gives a little twist by making the protagonist a witch. While many characters might wish that they could drastically change themselves, or that they could instantly become popular, Moth actually can. The ultimate lesson is still, of course, that magic cannot solve all of life’s problems. But it is fun to see how magic might try–the scene in the cafeteria where magically popular Moth begins a High School Musical-esque number and gets everyone to join in was amazingly hilarious. A reader starts to wonder if magic might not be a great solution. How else would one get to actually live in a musical for a moment?

The book is filled with moments of humor, from when Moth accidentally “twins” outfits with the dorkiest teacher at school to the scenes where her talking cat gets absorbed in a sitcom about a teenage witch. Though Moth is not happy with her life, readers can see that she is, in fact, surrounded by wonderful people. Even the dorky teacher turns out to be empathetic, sensitive, and, well, pretty cool. (Though it’s probably hard for a preteen to admit that.) Readers will delight in getting to enter into Moth’s world and experience all the loving support she has, if only she would recognize it.

The Okay Witch and the Hungry Shadow is a wonderful read, more effectively executed even than book one. Hopefully, there are yet more of Moth’s adventures to come!

4 stars

Eva Evergreen and the Cursed Witch by Julie Abe

Eva Evergreen and the Cursed Witch

Information

Goodreads: Eva Evergreen and the Cursed Witch
Series: Eva Evergreen #2
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

Now a Novice witch, Eva Evergreen is eager to help protect Rivelle Realm from magical weather events known as the Culling–and to prove her worth as a witch. However, she and her mother have recently discovered the true source of the Culling, a powerful wizard who has the trust of the queen. With only a pinch of magic, can Eva defeat the wizard and save the realm?

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Review

Eva Evergreen and the Cursed Witch is an uneven follow-up to its predecessor. Eva Evergreen, Semi-Magical Witch was fun, though notable mainly for its similarities to Kiki’s Delivery Service, as well as its failure to provide any meaningful worldbuilding. This sequel attempts to rectify those mistakes with some sloppy and inconsistent worldbuilding, but loses most of the previous book’s charm along the way. Enthusiastic fans of the first book may enjoy Eva Evergreen and the Cursed Witch, but ambivalent readers will find little to enchant them in a book where Eva’s friends have all but disappeared, Eva’s unique “pinch of magic” is gone, and the new information about politics and magic are more nonsensical than not.

Despite its many flaws, the first book in the series did have a certain magic to it. Young readers probably would not have minded similarities to other stories, and Eva’s personality made her a winning character in an unoriginal plot. What made Eva original was her “pinch of magic,” her ability to find unconventional solutions to problems because she was forced to–she simply did not possess the power to do the types of spells other wizards and witches took for granted. She soon found friends in her new town precisely because she was creative, earnest, and kind. The book had an uplifting message about accepting one’s self as they are, and appreciating everyone for their unique qualities. In book two, however, many of these aspects of the previous story are gone.

Eva Evergreen and the Cursed Witch separates Eva from her old friends in Auteri, with Davy and Charlotte only popping up periodically to help when needed. Their friendship does not seem as strong, and Eva is more concerned with finding and stopping the source of the Culling than she is about her relationships. Davy and Charlotte barely seem to have any personality, and I could not really remember why they liked Eva so much, or why they had decided to leave their home for her. She certainly did not seem to care too much about them.

Notably, too, Eva’s “pinch of magic” has disappeared. In an effort to ramp up the drama, the book has the Culling appearing every few days instead of once a year or so. And Eva, though barely qualified to be a witch, is running about the whole of Rivelle stopping it, often single-handedly (apparently). How is unclear, because it took her an entire month in the last book to come up with a viable solution to the Culling–one that was creative, if odd. Readers must simply assume that somehow her magic–which is now described as simply very limited and lackluster, rather than unique–is suddenly enough to save the realm. But the whimsy is gone. Eva is now just a poor witch, rather than an innovative one.

Julie Abe does seek to rectify the limited worldbuilding of the last book in this one, but the results are uneven. For instance, readers know there is a queen (chosen from some training academies located across the realm) who is highly revered. She works with a Council of magic wielders. Though the Council holds much power, they ultimately seem to be more like advisors, with the queen having the final say on matters of importance (the exact power dynamics are unclear, though). However, in practice, members of the Council do things like: burst unannounced into the queen’s private meetings to break them up to advance their own ends, call Council meetings without giving the queen prior notice, speak disrespectfully to the queen in public, let random Novices into secret Inner Council meetings because it advances the plot, and call last-minute show trials so they can get rid of people they don’t like without any actual evidence (with the queen mostly just watching on as it happens). So the politics and power dynamics are very unclear, as is why anyone would respect a queen who lets any of this occur.

The magical background is also disappointing. Book one and book two both have hinted broadly about rogue magic and its dangers. The implication has always been that rogue magic was banned years ago, like in ancient days, because it was so destructive. No one knows anything about rogue magic or how it works, and books on it are almost impossible to find because all mentions of it have been destroyed. People who once researched rogue magic or alternative theories of magic are suspect. Yet. The big plot reveal is that the last big incident of rogue magic was less than ten years ago and is connected to one of the most influential people of the realm. It could not have been a secret because people died. But somehow no one knows about this rogue magic, or suspects that this person could be involved with the new rogue magic threatening the realm. Everyone in the Council, if not Rivelle, should rightly know all about this, but somehow they don’t. I have big problems with books that rely on characters’ stupidity to advance the plot, and this is a prime instance.

Eva Evergreen and the Cursed Witch has a promising premise, but fails to deliver. The shoddy worldbuilding, as well as the backwards character development, and the lack of meaningful friendships, make this book less than enchanting.

2 star review

Witches of Brooklyn: What the Hex?! by Sophie Escabasse

Witches of Brooklyn What the Hex

Information

Goodreads: Witches of Brooklyn: What the Hex?!
Series: Witches of Brooklyn #2
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

Sophie loves exploring her new powers as a witch and, even better, she’s starting to meet the other witches in town. They’re really cool women who do their best to help others! But there’s a new girl at school, and suddenly everyone seems way more interested in her than they are interested in hanging out with Sophie. Can this witch figure out how to save her friendships?

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Review

The sequel to Witches of Brooklyn is an engaging, if not particularly memorable read. Like many middle-grade graphic novels, it focuses on the drama of changing friend groups, though with the added twist of making the protagonist a witch. Sophie, however, does not experience any real struggles with her magic in this installment, thereby lessening much of the drama and keeping the focus on her jealousy towards her friend’s infatuation with the new girl at school. What the Hex?! is a pleasant read, but not the type of story that invites rereading.

What the Hex?! attempts to intertwine two parallel stories, with only partial success. One thread follows Sophie’s anger at her friend for paying more attention to the new girl than to her. Another follows Sophie as she meets more neighborhood witches, and learns about a city corner that seems to be cursed–at least, everyone who goes by seems to meet with bad luck. Predictably, Sophie’s ability to move past her jealousy and reach out is what ultimately enables her to solve the conflict at the corner, as well.

Unfortunately, however, the magic system is somewhat undeveloped, as is the process whereby Sophie solves the problem of the curse. As a result, the ending scene feels a bit rushed or perhaps unearned. Sophie has a random idea about the corner, based on little evidence, that just happens to be right. And then all is solved by the power of friendship! I support messages of friendship, but sometimes just throwing out that love can solve everything seems a bit too facile to be believable. There needs to be work involved, as well.

In the end, I did enjoy What the Hex?!, but the story and the art do not stand out from all the similar titles. Witchy middle-grade books are trending, as are middle school friendship dramas. As are witchy friendship dramas, which is apparently now its own subgenre. What the Hex?! simply is not as strong as the titles it is competing with. And it is not really the kind of book that I see lasting.

3 Stars

Sabrina the Teenage Witch by Kelly Thompson, et al

Sabrina the Teenage Witch

Information

Goodreads: Sabrina the Teenage Witch
Series: Sabrina the Teenage Witch Issues #1-5
Source: Library
Published: 2019

Official Summary

Sabrina is a teen witch who’s struggling with balancing the double life of high school and her burgeoning powers. Newly relocated to Greendale with her aunts Hilda and Zelda (also witches), Sabrina is trying to make the best of being the new girl in town which so far includes two intriguing love interests, an instant rivalry, a couple of misfits that could turn into BFFs, and trying to save the high school (and maybe the world) from crazy supernatural events. NBD!

Sabrina the Teenage Witch collects issues #1-5 of the ongoing series and features bonus content including the first full issue of Archie and Sabrina written by Nick Spencer and Mariko Tamaki, with art by Sandy Jarrell and Jenn St-Onge.

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Review

Reading about The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, a supernatural horror take on the teenage witch, initially made me leery of picking up this title. I do not care for books that are too dark, including pacts with demons and other things possibly too terrible to name. I just want a fun witchy tale for Halloween, not something that will give me nightmares. But Kelly Thompson’s Sabrina the Teenage Witch just hit the spot, presenting a Sabrina who is involved in magical mysteries, but absolutely nothing too scary.

The artwork presents Sabrina as a cute, quirky teenager, eager to fit in with her human peers, but also excited to use magic. Her aunts want her to be careful, but a few simple spells can’t hurt, right? Sabrina’s little spells, of course, quickly bring huge trouble as she discovers that her school seems to be some sort of supernatural hotspot. Readers will follow Sabrina’s adventures avidly as she tries to navigate normal parts of high school, like dealing with mean girls, while secretly investigating a magical mystery.

The main weak spot of the story is admittedly its conclusion. The villain is revealed rather hastily, with only vague motivations readers cannot know too much about. And Sabrina ends up saving the day, but only because her aunts happen to have a storeroom of incredibly rare magical artifacts. Sabrina does not really get to show off her powers or what she can do with them. She wins largely because she was better equipped than the bad guy. And this is disappointing.

Even so, I enjoyed Thompson’s Sabrina the Teenage Witch and its mix of the magical with the everyday. I want to know more about Sabrina’s life. I want to see which cute guy she’ll finally choose to go out with. I want to know if she gets to learn more powerful magic. This version of Sabrina is perfect for the reader looking for a book that has witches and magic, but is never very scary.

4 stars

Well Witched by Frances Hardinge

Well Witched

Information

Goodreads: Well Witched
Series: None
Source:
Library
Published:
2007

Official Summary

Ryan and his friends don’t think twice about stealing some money from a wishing well. After all, who’s really going to miss a few tarnished coins?

The well witch does.

And she demands payback: Now Ryan, Josh, and Chelle must serve her . . . and the wishes that lie rotting at the bottom of her well. Each takes on powers they didn’t ask for and don’t want. Ryan grows strange bumps–are they eyes?–between his knuckles; Chelle starts speaking the secrets of strangers, no matter how awful and bloody; and Josh can suddenly–inexplicably–grant even the darkest of wishes, the kind of wishes that should never come true.

Darkly witty, wholly unexpected, and exquisitely sinister, Frances Hardinge’s Well Witched is one well-cast tale that readers didn’t know they were wishing for.

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Review

I have loved every book by Frances Hardinge that I have read, so I was more than surprised to discover that Well Witched failed to capture my imagination in the same way as her other stories have. While I associate Hardinge’s work with beautiful prose, as well as with quirky and imaginative stories, Well Witched reads a bit more like a standard middle-grade fantasy than it does a highly original and inventive tale. In the end, I enjoyed Well Witched, but it does not strike me as a read that is memorable, or one that I am likely to read again.

The aspect I enjoyed most about Well Witched is the way that magic intersects with the contemporary world. Often, fantasies tend to be set in pseudo-medieval worlds, alternative worlds, or worlds based on a past time period. Much rarer are those stories that suggest that magic is still around, and that the readers, too, might just be able to catch a glimpse. In Well Witched, the characters receive unwelcome powers after stealing coins from a wishing well. They must then determine what the well witch wants from them, all while hiding their new strangeness from friends and family. I absolutely loved the idea that contemporary characters have to figure out how to accept the presence of magic in their midst, all while hiding the fact from people who might think they are crazy.

The characterization, however, does not reach the standards I have come to expect from Hardinge. What I love about her books is that her protagonists are often conflicted, but also often not very nice. They are not necessarily heroes or people striving to do the right thing, but people striving to survive. In Well Witched, there are echoes of Hardinge’s complex characters, particularly in Josh, the leader of the trio of protagonists, who seems to enjoy his dark new powers a little too much. However, the story is told mainly from the perspective Ryan, who is more of a do-gooder, a little more boring, and a little unobservant for someone the story claims can see things others cannot. One of the main things Ryan misses is his friend Chelle, whom he dismisses as a bubbly, perhaps not too bright, chatterer, just like everyone else. Perhaps it is the presence of three main characters that throws this book off, but each one gets a few defining characteristics, but none really comes alive in the breathtaking way that Hardinge is capable of.

Finally, the plot in Well Witched is not evenly paced, and somehow comes across as less original than it probably is. The story starts off incredibly slowly, and only picks up steam in the final third. By this point, of course, some readers may have already given up. The slow pacing at the start damages the feeling of the story overall. The idea that an ancient spirit of some sorts is now trapped in a modern-day well, granting twisted witches, is a great one! But all the interesting bits that come with this information arrive too late in the tale to feel as meaningful and gripping as they might. I love the concept of Well Witched. I think the execution could be improved.

Well Witched is not a bad story by any means. It is certainly worth a read for fans of Hardinge, and it will probably also appeal to readers who like their tales twisted. Hardinge excels at the creepy, and not many middle-grade authors seem to be willing to go as as dark as she does. We’re talking infanticide (a story from the past–not depicted in the present storyline), souls trapped in some sort of limbo hell, and friends willing to commit murder to keep their powers. Perhaps it is not surprising that some readers prefer to categorize Hardinge’s middle-grade books as YA. But for readers who like a bit of horror, Hardinge delivers.

So would I recommend Well Witched? Certainly, to the right reader. Do I think it is Hardinge’s best work? Probably not. But even Hardinge’s more standard fare is engaging.

3 Stars

Lilla the Accidental Witch by Eleanor Crewes (ARC Review)

Lilla the Accidental Witch

Information

Goodreads: Lilla the Accidental Witch
Series: None
Source: ARC from publisher
Publication Date: July 6, 2021

Official Summary

Magic is tough. Family is tougher. Boys are a complete mystery. Follow Lilla as she stumbles her way through each of them in Eleanor Crewes’s uniquely illustrated debut middle-grade graphic novel.

Thirteen-year-old Lilla feels she is a bit different. She’s quiet and shy and sometimes feels uncomfortable in the company of boys. She’d much rather spend time by herself drawing and daydreaming. This summer, while staying with her aunt in rural Italy, Lilla discovers a book of magic which reveals that she is a witch with special powers, the magic of ‘Strega’.

But unbeknownst to her, an ancient witch, Stregamama, threatens to ruin more than just her summer. Lilla is soon faced with a choice that could change her life forever.

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Review

Lilla the Accidental Witch is a standard coming-of-age story that brings little new to the table. The titular Lilla discovers an ancient book of magic while visiting her aunt, and eventually learns that she comes from a long line of witches. However, an evil witch roams the forest, seeking an innocent soul who will grant her new life–and she believes Lilla, with her teenage lack of confidence, as well as her confusion about her sexuality, makes the perfect target. Lilla, of course, saves herself (and everyone else) by learning to be true to herself: a magic stronger than any spell that can be learned. I really wanted to like this graphic novel, but it is a story I have read many times before, and nothing about this particular book makes it feel fresh or exciting.

Because this is a graphic novel, the artwork has the potential to make Lilla the Accidental Witch an enchanting read. Of course, however, the ARC version leaves the majority of the illustrations as sketches that have yet to be colored in. This largely had the effect of making me have to squint very hard at each panel, so I could distinguish the characters by their hairstyles, since nothing else was making them stand out from each other. The first few pages were, fortunately, colored in, giving me a taste of what the final book might look like. But while I admit that this greatly improved the ease of the reading experience, the kind of muted color palette did not particularly appeal to me, though it might appeal to others. Ultimately, however, the colors might not matter at all–most middle-grade graphic novels seem to be well-received by the avid comics readers who are in the targeted age range for the book.

The story itself is pretty lackluster simply because I have seen it done so many times before. Witch graphic novels are trending right now, and, of course, the coming-of-age story is perennially popular for the middle grade market. I really wanted to see something new and different, here, but even a talking cat (which I always think makes a story better) could not make the story interesting to me. Even setting the story in Italy didn’t make it more interesting to me.

Ultimately, however, I am but an adult reader reflecting on the similarities I see in many titles being published today. Most tween readers do not seem to worry about such things. Indeed, most of the tween readers whom I know will read anything as long as it comes in a graphic novel format. So this book did not strike me as anything new or exciting, I suspect that it will still do well among its intended market audience.

3 Stars