Book Review: What Should be Wild, by Julia Fine
on Nathan, or Wishing Time Could Stand Still

Book Review: Half-Witch by John Schoffstall

For my last read of 2018, I had two novels to choose from: A Winter’s Promise by Christelle Dabos and Half Witch by John Schoffstall. I started A Winter’s Promise first, as it has gotten more press. Written by a young writer in France, it tells the story of a world that is similar to Victorian England, except the world was long ago broken into arcs, floating celestial islands where people live. Our protagonist, Ophelia, possesses two powers: she can “read” the history of any object she touches, and she can travel through mirrors. She isn’t very pretty, and she doesn’t care about how she looks; she mostly wants to continue learning in the library of her godfather. But her parents agree to marry her to the wealthy son of another arc, and thus she is thrust into political intrigue and societal machinations.

At least, I think that was where the story was going. I didn’t get very far; I can’t really explain why, but the language just didn’t grab me, and Ophelia was more frustrating than I could deal with.

So, remembering that I am often stymied in my quest to find young adult fantasy (or any fantasy, really) that I can totally love, I set down A Winter’s Promise and picked up Half Witch.

Half witchThis is a story that is also set in a world very much like ours. Like Europe in medieval times, specifically. Except, there’s more magic here. You can talk to God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit, for example, when you take communion (like, literally talk to one of them). There are goblins, and crooked houses, and witches. Lizbet, our main character, lives with her father, who is sort of a scoundrel, so every few months or so they have to pick up and flee from another town. They’ve managed to stay awhile in their current town, which is at the base of the world-spanning mountains; Lizbet goes to school and has a safe place to live. Until, that is, her father, who has managed to convince everyone that he’s a magician, casts a spell that backfires: a rain of mice.

Disgraced, he is thrown in prison, and to free him, Lizbet sets out on a quest for the Margrave: find a book of magic he lost on the other side of the Montagnes du Monde, the impassible mountains. Lizbet loves her father, despite his faults, and besides, she doesn’t want to live in an orphanage, so she sets out to find the book. As with any good quest, adventures abound and new friends are discovered, most notably Strix, a teenaged witch with an unpleasant personality. For unknown reasons, she is willing to help Lizbet (albeit grumpily).

Friends, I fell right into this story. I didn’t want to put it down and only did so reluctantly, to wrap gifts and to shop for Christmas.

Partly I loved it because of the witches. They are beings made from random stuff; Strix is made of bits of wood, straw, wire, and cloth. Some of her skin is pages from books and sheets of lost love letters. Her eyes are a shell and a stone, and her feet are switched—left foot on right leg. As she tries to explain this to Lizbet, she says that witches are people who break things, and then make new things with what was broken. They have their own rules, and are not under the power or influence of Christianity, but their witch rules, which cannot be broken. (The earth witches, for example, love devouring corpses but can only eat dead bodies, not live ones.) This is both unlike and like what I think witches are. In many stories, witches are women’s power made into flesh, a deviation of women away from what society wants her to do, so society makes her power evil. These witches aren’t evil but simply themselves, but they are also powerful and, most especially, creative. They make things from what is broken.

I like that.

I also like Strix's other skill, one which all witches have. She can extract the humors from people. So, once someone dies (or, you killed by being run through a juicing press, as witches do), she can reach into their bodies (through their nose) and extract humor, courage, kindness, cruelty, etc. Each of the humors has a shape, a color, a substance, and she can bottle it up and put it into other people if necessary. These humors grow important as the story goes on, and eventually Strix has to put some of Christ's divine nature into Lizbet. And then, later, other, meaner qualities. When she removes them, Lizbet says she thought she would be the same, but she isn't. "While it's in you, it changes you," Strix explains. "Everything you do molds you, and squeezes you into its shape. Your heart always has the imprint of everything you've done, everything you've been."

(Which is a really good example of why I love some fantasy, the kind that manages to resonate with me. Because just because you're reading about a world that doesn't exist, with characters who are physically impossible, it doesn't mean you won't find truth there. In fact, the truth stands out more, maybe because of the strangeness of the setting and the characters.)

I also liked how Lizbet changes. Physically, she gains some witch legs. But she also grows up: she learns (or, I guess, begins to learn) that some rules are based in real need or truth, but some are just part of culture; figuring out which is part of the process of becoming an adult. Lizbet starts out as sort of a goody-two-shoes. She wants to follow all the rules and stay away from bad things. As the story progresses, she learns what "bad" might be, and what it isn't. So, yes: A quest story mixed with a bildungsroman. Swoon.

But even more, what I loved about this story was that it is a story about friendship. As a witch, Strix doesn’t believe in friendship; it’s a human thing, made up to trick other humans in her view. But Lizbet, who is starved for friendship, teaches her what friendship is. Lizbet also learns what it is, too.

I loved this little story. I think there will be a sequel—not everything is tied up—but it didn’t leave me in that gasping lurch that some first books do. I don’t necessarily need more of the story, but I want more of Lizbet’s and Strix’s friendship. An excellent finish to a year of some pretty great reading experiences.



Definitely on my 'must read list' now, and I'll also put it on the library's shopping list!

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