Friday, June 13, 2014

The Good Witch: The Thickety: A Path Begins by J. A. White

"How many years have you?" asked Fen'de Stone.


"Five." the fen'de repeated. He sighed dramatically. "It is too late, no doubt. But the Children of the Fold are just in all things, and we shall learn if you have inherited your mother's powers. If you, Kara Westfall, are a witch as well."

"I'm not a witch."

"There is no such thing as a good witch." On the island of De'Noran, there can be no magic. The Children of the Fold follow The Path, the teachings of Timoth Clen, that hold that magic is the ultimate evil, one that the Children must fight daily, even as they fight the constant encroachment of the Thickety, the dark and feared forest, the very locus of black magic which always threatens to overgrow their farms and town.

Before her eyes Kara's mother is hanged as a witch, and although Kara passes the fen'de's test, and with her frail newborn brother Taff and her shattered father stumble back to their farm and try to go on, they are shunned and feared by the people around. At school, Kara is alone, except when Grace Stone, the strange white-haired and lame daughter of the fen'de, taunts her and reminds her of her family's shame. Still, Kara knows that her mother was good and that she herself feels magical stirrings, an ability to communicate with animals and heal them.

Then comes a day when Kara meets her true self, when a mystical messenger, a little bird with one ever-changing eye leads her into the forbidden Thickety, the redoubt of the ultimate Evil, Sordyr, and shows her where a magical leather-bound book is buried, one that Kara believes to be her mother's grimoire, her book of spells. To her eyes the pages are blank, but when in her mind she imagines a strange beast, the fantasy animal appears on page and comes alive. Some are dangerous, one with five mouths, but Kara realizes that she has control over what she imagines. Kara knows the danger in the book, but finds that it draws her back irresistibly.

But the jealous Grace intuits a difference in Kara and immediately knows what the strongly bound book really is. race covets magic more than life, and with careful scheming, sets up a situation in which she knows Kara will choose her little brother's life over the possession of the grimoire, but what Grace does when she gains control over that magic is as twisted and evil as Grace herself.

Kara realizes that the book Grace wields is not indeed her mother's spell book, but one of a magical practitioner, Addie, whom her mother was forced to murder to end her evil. Kara finds her mother's grimoire, a plain notebook like any other, with only five pages remaining upon which to imagine new spells.  Kara knows that no witch must use the last spell page lest she be destroyed herself. Yet she is inexorably drawn toward the final duel of magic with Grace, with the fate of her family and all of the Children of the Path at stake.

J. C. White's just published The Thickety: A Path Begins (HarperCollins, 2014) crafts a powerfully suspenseful story firmly in the tradition of English language fantasy novels already set by C.S. Lewis' Narnia books, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, and J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, and many others, which have cast in a metaphor of  good and bad magic, the moral conflict between good and evil and the will to power. Kara is a worthy successor of those prototype protagonists, a strong character, gifted with powers of healing and love, but also capable of weighing dreadful choices on the way to advancing those ends. With unusual but believable characters, non-stop action, and a stark setting in a not-quite-of-this-world  proto-Puritan society, stable but too rigid to deal justly with an ever-changing world, White sets up his first novel as the introduction to what looks to be a thrilling and substantial fantasy adventure series with much promise.

"...  A stunning climax and a seemingly perfect resolution," says Kirkus in its starred review. Publisher's Weekly also assigns a star and adds, "Absolutely thrilling."  This is absorbing summer fare for fantasy fans ready for a read set in its own magical middle earth, but one, as in all such tales, eerily like our own.

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