‘The Witchling’s Girl’ is a quiet young adult fantasy that burrows under your skin and refuses to let you go. The magical elements are intriguing, but the real heart of the story is in its emotions – sadness and longing and heartbreak and love. This is not a happy story, but it’s a profoundly impactful one that lingers long beyond the last page.
The story follows Haley – a perfectly normal child until, aged seven, she accidentally resurrects the family cat. The only people with the ability to resurrect the dead are the Witchling’s – healers and herbalists, but also those with death magic, who can resurrect the dead or take them to the afterlife for judgement. As she knows she must, Haley’s mother takes her to the current Witchling – Marion – and abandons her, leaving the Witchling to train Haley to be her successor. At first, Haley fights her fate – but every town needs a Witchling, and the costs of Haley not becoming the Witchling are worse than those she faces becoming one.
It’s impossible not to become attached to Haley. She’s introduced as a terrified seven year old, not understanding why her mother has left her behind in a strange place. She hates the Witchling and longs so badly for a freedom she will never achieve. As time passes, she grows and matures – but some of that defiant seven year old always remains, and it’s a flaw that’s eminently relatable. Haley is, at heart, a nice person – she cares about people, and wants to do the right thing – but she often cares too much and that starts to become her downfall.
The world Helena Coggan crafts is exquisite in its simplicity. In many respects it feels like Medieval Britain – small towns run by rival Lords, each with their own healer-herbalist who works to balance the humours – but Coggan has taken this framework and built a fantasy world out of it. In her version, there is death-magic – a way of healing severe wounds by giving some of your energy to another, and a way to resurrect the dead – but only once, and at the cost of that person never going to the afterlife. It’s a familiar feeling magic system, but one which works perfectly with the setting and is beautifully described.
The plot is nothing like what I expected when I picked this up. It’s cleverly crafted, with little hints dropped throughout, but still manages to catch you by surprise. The first few chapters are reminiscent of novels like ‘The Sin Eater‘ – historical fiction about a child outcast – but this goes in an entirely different direction, weaving in political upheaval and supernatural entities and, above all, a child forbidden from connecting with others trying – but failing – to follow that vow. Haley doesn’t make good, or logical, decisions, but each one is completely understandable, and the story doesn’t shy away from the consequences. This is magical realism, but the fact that the protagonist is allowed to make these childish decisions makes it feel more real than many similar novels that follow stricter historical fiction.
The writing is one of the best parts. It doesn’t try to be flowery or lyrical; doesn’t craft elaborate descriptions – it just tells the story, but it does it in such a way that every emotion is a stab through the heart. There are a few moments where the flow isn’t perfect, but beyond those this is a masterclass in the effectiveness of simplicity.
Overall, this is a story that’s far more than the sum of its parts. If you’re looking for fantasy filled with action and bold characters this isn’t the book for you – but if you want to read something quieter, something that focuses on character and connection, something that crafts a little bubble of a world and explores the delicate dynamics within that, then this is a recommended read.
Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback: 7th January 2021