The Witch's Boy by Kelly Barnhill Book Review

The Witch's Boy by Kelly Barnhill
Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers
Release Date: September 16, 2014

When Ned and his identical twin brother tumble from their raft into a raging river, only Ned survives. Barely. Villagers are convinced that the wrong boy was rescued, the wrong boy lived. His mother, keeper of an ancient magic and the local witch, saves Ned's life by sowing the soul of his dead brother into him. Perhaps this is the reason why Ned grows up weak and slow, unable to read, with a terrible stutter. While his mother is away, after saving the life of the Queen, bandits come for the magic. Not knowing what else to do, Ned takes all the magic into himself. He is sure that it will kill him and is a bit surprised when it doesn't.

Meanwhile in another kingdom, separated from Ned's village by a magical forest, a terrible boy King has decided that he wants the magic. He hires bandits to do the job, not knowing that the Bandit King he hired has some magic of his own and he wants more. Áine sees what the magic has done to her father though, so when Ned turns up, magic rippling on his skin, she is determined to get Ned as far away from her father as possible. Together they set out to return Ned to his kingdom, unaware of an even older magic and a prophecy that is already changing them.

From the moment Ned's brother's soul was stitched into him, I was hooked. The consequences of this magic are huge and dark. Despite warnings of what the magic can and can't do, should and shouldn't, those ideas quickly become twisted in this world where magic must be bent by will to do good. Once Ned takes the magic into himself, he finds that it has many voices and they aren't all good. Some encourage him to kill while others say to flee. Magic is dangerous and old.

The characters felt a bit archetypal at times, full of fairy tale tropes, but I found myself warming to them as the story progressed. I especially like Áine who is clever and no-nonsense in a way that made her relateable to me. Ned was a bit more of a silent (literally) mystery for a while. I was never entirely sure what his feelings were in regards to his brother or Áine or how he felt to be the vessel for such powerful magic. Frustrated to be sure, but his main goal was simply to return home with little thought of what he will do once he gets there. We were already in his head, I just wish we could have gone a little deeper.

There is a lot of great back story here too that the main characters never really know about. The Bandit King has no idea where his magic pendant comes from, only that it helps him and he wants more power because of it. It twists him. Stones, ancient and old, whisper of the wrong boy who is coming to free them. Although there was a lot of foreshadowing and it was predictable in nature, I never found myself frustrated by it. We know the Stones will take back their magic. It has been prophesied. The reader doesn't know however, how that will happen. Like a true quest story, it is the journey that matters.