The Witch’s Boy, by Kelly Barnhill, was published in 2014 by Algonquin Young Readers.
When Ned and his identical twin brother tumble from their raft into a raging river, only Ned survives. Villagers are convinced the wrong boy lived. But when a Bandit King comes to steal the magic 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. Meanwhile, across the enchanted forest that borders Ned’s village lives Áine, the resourceful and pragmatic daughter of the Bandit King, who is haunted by her mother’s last words to her: “The wrong boy will save your life and you will save his.” When Áine and Ned’s paths cross, can they trust each other long enough to stop the war that’s about to boil over between their two kingdoms?
The Witch’s Boy has a really interesting writing style that I wasn’t sure whether to love or hate. At some points, I thought it was overdone, like any passage that compares Áine to a wolf or that just unnecessarily expands on something or the many, many instances of repetition. But at other points, I really enjoyed it, like all the parts with the queen and the witch and some parts with the magic. My love/hate relationship with the writing extends to the entirety of the book as well, so that I’m not sure whether I liked it or not.
One thought that stood out to me when I finished the book was, “That would have made a good trilogy.” And it’s not that I wish Barnhill had made a trilogy, since those are a little overdone and this plot in particular would have had to be quite thinned out, but I really wanted to see what this book could have been like as perhaps two books. I thought the part where Ned and the magic were combined were really interesting, and I wished that more time had been spent on that. I liked the progression of Ned and Áine’s relationship, although I thought it was done much too quickly. The plot in general was accomplished very quickly, and the last third of the book was this really slow denouement to the point where I just wondered when it would end. That’s why I think I wanted this book to be two or three books, so that I could enjoy the plot without thinking that everything was going by way too fast. But as it stands, I just spent a lot of time thinking, “Oh, that was neat. I wish that had been developed more.” And “Oh, Áine thinks that about Ned all ready? I wish that had been developed more.”
I liked the lore and the world in general, although again, I really wished it had been developed more because I liked it so much. I really liked the visual image of the words written on Ned’s skin (although I don’t know why they appeared that way and it wasn’t dwelt on, and I wish we knew what words they were) and I liked the beautiful imagery of the soul. As I mentioned above, I loved the queen and the witch’s scenes, and although they turned into giant Deus Ex Machinas, I liked the Stones as well. I just wish that, yes, it had been developed more, because I liked what I saw and I wanted to see more of it more slowly.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
His sleeve hiked over his elbow and Ned stared at his skin in amazement. His hands were covered with words. And his arms. And shoulders and belly and legs and chest. His back and face too, by the feel of it. Moving words. Words that scribbled and looped, crossed one another out, and scripted furiously forward. The words encircled each finger, blotched n the knuckles, tore across his wrists, and swirled over his arms.
He couldn’t read a word of it.
But it hurt.