Katherine Tegen Books, $16.99 hardbound, ISBN-10 0062257242, May 2014
Hand in hand, the witch’s children walked down the empty road. When Kara Westfall was six years old, her mother was convicted of the worst of all crimes: witchcraft. Years later, Kara and her little brother, Taff, are still shunned by the people of their village, who believe that nothing is more evil than magic . . . except, perhaps, the mysterious forest that covers nearly the entire island. It has many names, this place. Sometimes it is called the Dark Wood, or Sordyr’s Realm. But mostly it’s called the Thickety. The black-leaved trees swayed toward Kara and then away, as though beckoning her. The villagers live in fear of the Thickety and the terrible creatures that live there. But when an unusual bird lures Kara into the forbidden forest, she discovers a strange book with unspeakable powers. A book that might have belonged to her mother.
Kara’s puritanical society is so anti-magic, even saying “I wish” can get you into trouble. Kara and her brother Taff live under constant suspicion from their fellow villagers, especially the Fen’de, the village leader. He’s sort of a mayor/preacher combo. He ordered the execution of Kara’s mother and is sure Kara inherited her mother’s magic, if only he could prove it. His daughter Grace, a beautiful girl with a crippled leg, bullies Kara mercilessly with the help of a mentally challenged giant named Simon who does anything Grace says. Because of Grace’s position, her handicap, and her talent for saying all the right things to the adults, Kara has no power against her.
When Kara ventures into the Thickety, a dense forest that covers most of the island and must be constantly cut back by a caste of workers, she finds a witch’s grimoire that writes itself each time a spell is cast. At first, the grimoire saves Kara a few times by amplifying her natural gift with animals. However, she quickly learns that the power of the book is evil and addictive, and when it falls into the wrong hands, her entire village will need Kara’s courage, sacrifice, and powers to survive.
Kara and her brother Taff are likable enough, as is Kara’s friend Lucas, but the vast majority of characters are antagonistic and unsympathetic, making for an often grim read. Themes of bullying and addiction make this dark fantasy great discussion fodder, although the world-building is a bit thin. Villagers often allude to the World, meaning society outside the Thickety. Apparently the rest of the world didn’t ban magic, but Kara’s people have extremely limited contact with them. The topic is dropped there, with no mention of time period or anything else about the rest of the world. This is the first in a series, so I assume White is holding back for future volumes. It’s an imperfect but promising beginning to a new spooky world.
Recommend to: Fans of dark fantasy
To buy or not to buy: A good buy for large juvenile fiction collections