“Kara lay in bed thinking about names.”
Only, she doesn’t end up laying in bed for much longer because faster than you can say “bippity, boppity, boo,” some thugs show up, stuff her in a sack, and take her to the town square to watch her mother get hanged for being a witch. Shit happens, you know? Flash forward a bunch of years and Kara is perpetually mocked for being a witch, her dad is in the pits of despair for ratting out her witch mother, and her little brother is basically always hocking up the black death or something. This would be crappy enough, but Kara, who lives in an isolated community that believes all forms of magic are unadulterated evil, is beginning to show the slightest stirrings of power. Then, one day, a crazy ass bird with an eyeball in its chest lures her into the Thickety, an evil, hungry, and impenetrable forest at the border of her community, and in the Thickety she finds something that could both damn her and help her learn about her long dead mother and therefore, herself: her mother’s grimoire.
Now, first things first, I at first wasn’t totally sold on this book, but as I read and read and read at a fairly frantic pace I got sold on a bunch of things. White’s world building is tricky and superb. Throughout the somewhat hefty 488 pages (this is a book for kids, after all), he subtly adds layers of complexity and depth to this strange, strange world. The plot likewise unfolds at a relatively slow pace for its intended age; each turn in the plot reveals a bit more about the world, so that the world building and the plot development are inextricably linked, a neat trick if you ask me.
Now, another solid gold nugget for me but perhaps a detractor for many readers, including plenty of the intended age range, is its pitch black darkness. I’d read articles about last year’s plethora of dark offerings for middle grade readers that included nods to this little brick, but I still wasn’t fully prepared for the full darkness contained within. There is torture, there are some fairly gruesome deaths, there is plentiful sadism, there are allusions to people’s parents having affairs, there is addiction; this is all fairly meaty stuff for a middle grade book, and I know there are a lot of readers/reviewers who have taken issue with this. I will admit I was slightly shocked at just how dark it was, but I am also a librarian and I firmly believe that if kids find something they can’t quite handle in a book they are fully capable of putting it down. Some of my little patrons would definitely not be able to deal with this, but I also have quite a few who would gobble it up and ask for seconds, which is fortunate since there’s a sequal!
I only had a few real quibbles with this one, one of which being the characters. They aren’t teeerrribly developed, and so even though a lot of dire shit is afoot pretty much all the time, I never got fully invested in whether or not their tongues grew tentacles and choked them (this actually happens at one point, it’s sick). The villain is so villainous that she comes off as a tad cartoonish, to the point that whenever she showed up in a scene I got pushed out of the story a bit by my slight incredulity.
Other than that, this is a solid read if you are a kid who likes your stories black as a witch’s heart or even if you are an adult who reads kids books because it’s your job but also because fuck the haters, you read what you want.
For music let’s do Electric Wizard’s “Sadiowitch” for our villain, the magic-addicted and extremely sadistic child witch extraordinaire. (Yes, I know I feature them a lot, but they are one of my favorite bands so you will deal.)