witchlings book coverThe Trauma of Growing Up and Fighting Monsters

Author: Claribel A. Ortega

Twelve-year-old Seven Salazar is on the path to all her dreams. Tonight, at the Black Moon Ceremony, in front of the entire town and by the side of her best friend, she will become a full-fledged witch and be sorted into House Hyacinth with her friend. At least, that’s what she hopes. There is a nagging feeling of doubt, but she pushes that down, smiles, dons her best dress, and prepares for the magical moment.

Only, it doesn’t come. Seven isn’t sorted into a coven with her best friend. Instead, Seven is a Spare. She, her school bully, and the new girl in town are sorted into the Spare coven. Spares are shunned witches, their covens smaller, their powers few. They are second-class citizens, abused by the other town’s denizens, forced to live poor, sequestered lives. This is no happily-ever-after, but a disaster. It gets even worse when Seven’s dismay keeps the new coven from sealing. To avoid remaining witchlings forever, she invokes the impossible task. It’s the only way forward into a murky future. If she and her new Spare coven cannot solve the task in two weeks, however, they will be turned into toads forever. The task: find the fearsome Nightbeast that has been stalking the town and eating witch babies and slay it. Impossible indeed.

I came to Witchlings full of hesitation. This was not a book I would have chosen for myself, but one that was chosen for me based on a volunteer event. I don’t read middle-grade fiction, and the cartoonish cover further put me off reading the book. I purchased the audiobook to make the reading time go by quicker, and prepared for a basic, overly simplified children’s story, derivative of a simpler, less dark version of Harry Potter. I was pleased to find out that I was wrong and shocked to discover that the story was complicated, dark and unflinching in places, and completely entertaining, even for a beleaguered adult audience.

Seven deals with some difficult feelings throughout her magical journey. Firstly, her best friend Poppy goes incommunicado after getting into the coven of Seven’s dreams, leaving an anguished Seven alone to deal with emotions of disappointment and abandonment. Then, Seven must deal with her two new coven mates, including her school bully, the pink-haired, know-it-all Valley. As the squabbling pair thwart their impossible task over arguments and misunderstandings, the tension grows. Not only is Seven emotional in this bleak time of her life, but the clock is ticking.

Thorn, the remaining member of the coven, has seen the Nightbeast before. It killed her baby brother before her eyes. This task might be too much for her. The nightmares, the returning fear, and now the horror of being placed in a coven of bickering strangers makes emotions run high. Mistakes are costly and frequent as the action/adventure plunges readers into cursed forests and ancient monster lore.

Meanwhile, there are even more difficult things with which to contend. As the Spares, formerly coddled in their lives, begin to see the realities of Spare life, we get a tinge of activism too. The Spares are essentially slaves and new laws are being pushed through by rich witches to make them even further shunned. As the girls wake up to what has been going on around them, they think of their own treatment of others, the unfairness of this social divide, and dread their future should they actually finish the impossible task.

As the girls fight monsters, each other, and themselves, even more intense themes get thrown into the mix. One of the characters reveals her history of child abuse to Seven, who is forced to make a hard decision. Should she honor the secret, or tell an adult?

And there was me, thinking this would all be lighthearted silliness. At times I wanted to sob on Seven’s behalf. Ortega does a great job capturing the emotions of a young person in turmoil, being forced to grow up suddenly and deal with things in the world that are both horrible and too big for them.

Of course, we do get magic and monsters as well. Lots of monsters, including the mythic Nightbeast. The Spares do come up with a decent scheme to finish the impossible task and along the way reveal a horrifying and complicated conspiracy.

All in all, Witchlings was a good book with a solid plot, characterization, and lots of action and danger. Ortega admits that it was inspired by Harry Potter in her afterward, but I thought it was unique enough to stand on its own, and frankly I liked it better than Harry Potter.

The only qualm I have for middle grade children is the more direct confrontation of witchcraft. While this is still very, very magical and not the “real deal,” you do have concepts such as covens, which are inspired by real world activities. This will necessitate some conversation with children, i.e., the difference between fact and fiction. Some of the harder concepts too – such as child abuse – while expertly handled and not graphic, may be difficult especially for young children or a sensitive audience.

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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