Friday, 5 April 2013

Fantasy Review: 'Heart of the Witch' by Judy Goodwin

The basic premise here is not an unfamiliar one - a teenage boy learning to use magical powers has to leave home to avoid persecution. Fortunately, the author has neatly sidestepped the cliché-fest by setting the story outside the traditional medieval feudal system. Zerrick’s home is a colonial small town surrounded by jungle, far from the cooler home climate, and with a well-established system of slavery. The society is in many ways similar to early-post-settlement America, with a strong religion and an abhorrence of magic. Witches are often burned at the stake, and when the town’s herbalist, Alden, and Zerrick himself are both revealed as magic-users, they are condemned to die. Zerrick escapes into the jungle (well, it would be a very short story if he didn’t) and attempts to find a hidden tribe who will help him learn to use his powers. His encounters and experiences along the way form the body of the story.

Zerrick is a nicely realised character. He is that perfect blend of over-confidence and insecurity typical of his age - standing up to his charismatic and powerful father, and yet still yearning for acceptance. His desire to belong to a group and his final acceptance that his abilities will always make him different were very moving. He displays intelligence and initiative, and isn’t wildly reckless. Mira, the female lead, has a less plausible reason for taking off on a journey (she feels stifled by her over-protective family), but she too is resourceful and capable, when she’s allowed to be. Interestingly, she's been largely brought up by the household slaves (from an indigenous tribe), with the result that she speaks their language, knows all their customs and feels more affinity with them than with her own family and culture. Both Zerrick and Mira are well drawn characters. The delicate little romance that develops between them is rather sweet, although (as with almost all fictional romances) there are moments when I wanted to bang their heads together and yell at them to just talk to each other, dammit. And sometimes the circling round each other just felt too adolescent for words.

The magic system in this world is derived from living matter like plants, and those with magical ability can draw on that power and use it in various ways, but it’s difficult to control and can drive the user insane. This instability makes Zerrick’s desperate attempts to use magic very fraught, since it’s such an uncertain business. He never quite knows how it’s going to turn out (and neither does the reader, of course). All of this makes for a truly exciting journey for Zerrick and Mira. I honestly never knew what was going to happen next, and it was refreshing to read a fantasy story which was so unpredictable. It's hard to describe magic in understandable terms, but the author brilliantly conveys both the beauty of a world with magic almost everywhere, and the frightening power of it. And everything was completely consistent and followed naturally from the nature of magic (and the gods) and the characters themselves. The intricate intertwining of magic and the gods was very cleverly worked out, and made perfect sense.

Some grumbles: I would have liked a map. I always like my fantasy to come with a detailed map, and although I more or less kept track of where everything was, it would have been easier with a visual aid. And the book needed a final edit. There weren’t many typos, but there was a lot of untidiness, particularly towards the end, when even the gaps marking a new point of view disappeared, which was very confusing, especially as the story began to bounce between Zerrick and Mira more and more frequently. The ending was very slightly glib, the only part of the book that was at all predictable. But these are minor points.

This is a fabulous coming of age story, well-written in a nicely unobtrusive style, with realistic characters, a pacy and exciting plot, and a world filled with magical wonders. I don’t know whether it’s intended as a YA book, but there’s nothing here that would disturb a teenager. There are some deeper themes for those who want to look for them - on slavery, organised religion, intolerance of outsiders, faith and trust, illusion and reality, and more - but it’s an enjoyably entertaining page-turner too. Only the messy editing and that rather clunky romance keep it from the top rating. A good four stars.

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