Book review – The Witch’s Kiss trilogy by Katharine and Elizabeth Corr

Knowing my love of all things witchy, my sister gave me a copy of The Witch’s Kiss for my 19th birthday. I fell in love with Merry straight away. Who doesn’t love a great teenage witch? Katharine and Elizabeth are such a great writing team and wonderful people that I was able to meet via Twitter. Their banter, wit and love for each other shine through the characters they created in The Witch’s Kiss.

‘Witches do not kneel.’

I have read a lot of novels about witches and I think (nearly) all of them have a strongly feminist element. History has handed down tales of persecution of witches as our patriarchal society has attempted to control and subdue women. Witches represent the ultimate rebellion against patriarchy. They are strong, independent women that made the men of history afraid because they couldn’t be controlled. So they killed them in great numbers, even those that weren’t witches (and yes, many men as well!). The Witch’s Kiss touches on these themes with a cleverly executed blend of fairy tale and modern witch story. Katharine and Elizabeth create a world that is completely believable, while retaining classic fairy tale triangle of witches, princes and an evil wizard. Equally believable is the main character of the novel, Merry, a teenage girl in modern England that just happens to be a witch and descendant of the medieval witch, Meredith.

Merry was dreaming about blood.’

Merry dreams, she swears, thinks her brother is a pain in the neck, struggles to finish her homework, is messy, restless, spends hours texting and playing games on her phone, has trouble controlling her magic. I love novels that make you identify with the characters, and Merry’s red hair and quirky ways had me identifying with her straight away.

Gwydion ran his finger under the collar of his tunic, and wished he could stop sweating.’

Gwydion is the evil wizard and a totally despicable villain. But we see he has a vulnerable side as well. The novel reveals the sequence of events that turns Gwydion evil, not that this excuses his subsequent behaviour in any way but helps our understanding. In many ways, the evil character in a fairy tale is a metaphor for bad relationships and the way many men turn to physical or verbal violence when things don’t go their way. Gwydion was the son of a former slave, mocked by the castle’s servants, angry and powerless, scheming for revenge. This is a revenge that plays out over a very long time, eventually centuries. Gwydion is so bent on revenge it twists everything he does until he is so consumed by it the original hurt hardly seems justification any longer.

Jack? Jack!Where are you, lad?’

Jack is the King of Hearts. Forced to become Gwydion’s evil servant he is actually the son of the King and the Queen. Cursed by Gwydion as a baby, Jack is hidden away and raised as a commoner. Of course, he is the love interest for Merry but I don’t feel we really get to know Jack. We are led to believe he has a good heart but all his actions are controlled by Gwydion. Is this just an excuse? Another metaphor for male behaviour in relationships? I think so. Merry, though, falls in love with Jack and sees the good in him. Maybe her love can so him. Poor, naïve girl!

‘Leo was home by early afternoon.’

Leo is a foil for Merry. Her brother is very close to her even though they fight all the time. He isn’t magical but he supports Merry’s journey, having her back all the way even though he is dealing with his own issues. One of those is Leo’s search for love that doesn’t involve a fairy tale prince, but really he is searching for his own prince. He doesn’t find love in the fairy tale world and his issues are firmly planted in the real world. This is kind of interesting because traditional fairy tales didn’t treat being gay as a problem to be overcome but the real world does. When he does find love it just feels so right and natural (sorry, jumping ahead two novels!).

The Witch’s Kiss

The Witch’s Kiss is an amazing young adult novel that creates great characters and a truly believable world. The plot is intriguing enough to make you want to keep turning pages and there are enough twists to keep any teenage girl happy.

The Witch’s Tears

The Witch’s Tears was a wonderful follow-up to the first novel. We get to learn more about the characters and how they dealt with the emotional turns from the events of The Witch’s Kiss. If I had one complaint (and it’s a small one) it’s that The Witch’s Tears reminded me of The Empire Strikes Back. This is often a problem with middle books in a trilogy where the events are setting up the action and climax to come in the third story. I don’t think you could read The Witch’s Tears without having read the first and third novels. Then again, maybe that is what makes a great trilogy.

The Witch’s Blood

Last night I finished reading The Witch’s Blood and OMG!! There is more at stake, it’s possibly more exciting and the end left me crying! Merry knows what she can do now, but should she? Her community is against her and can her actions be justified because she is saving the people she loves? How is that different to Ronan’s actions? There is a blurry moral ground here. I also liked the environmental theme running through The Witch’s Blood. Merry’s magic – like modern consumption – comes at a cost to the land and eventually she has to make a choice.

I don’t usually do this in a review but I want to thank Katharine and Elizabeth Corr for being such wonderful people and taking the time to talk to an ordinary Australian girl. The Witch’s Kiss, The Witch’s Tears and The Witch’s Blood are definitely among my favourite books of all time and I will always treasure them.

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Book review – The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo

In the year that summer stayed too long, the heat lay upon the prairie with the weight of a corpse.’

The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo is a book of fairy tales as they should always have been told. Leigh strips away the fairy tale endings and searches for the real meaning behind the typical fairy tales we all know. They are terrifying, funny and heart warming. And the messages are even more real than those handed down to us over the centuries. Her use of language and understanding of the fairy tale medium is amazing. I was spellbound by each one. Disenchantment is a key theme in fairy tales, but most of Leigh Bardugo’s will surprise you – the disenchantment often comes from the least expected places. Fairy tales were originally meant for adults before somehow becoming children’s stories. The Language of Thorn’s is something of a return to more grownup story telling.

The first trap the fox escaped was his mother’s jaws.’

Not all the characters in The Language of Thorns are beautiful or handsome and waiting to be rescued. Some of the characters are not even likeable. But for all that I think they are more real than a typical fairy tale character. There are more reflections of our own character flaws and bad behaviour than we would like to acknowledge and this makes them so much more relatable.

‘There was a time when the woods near Duva ate girls.’

One of the purposes of fairy tales has always been to serve a warning to children, disguised as a seemingly simple story. Leigh Bardugo is not afraid to rework these stories to get at the heart of the message. We all grew up knowing we should be afraid of strangers – usually men – but the reality is that it’s people that are closest to us that are likely to cause the most harm, either physically or mentally.

It is dangerous to travel the northern road with a troubled heart.’

Fairy tales often involve a set of challenges that the protagonist must face in order to grow as a person. Sometimes these come in the form of a journey. Along the way they will face perilous situations, dangerous people, temptations, and all manner of sins that help them learn. Sometimes the purpose of such a journey is to challenge long held beliefs. A common theme in fairy tales often involves a ‘beast’, with whom the protagonist eventually falls in love. Some believe the purpose of such a theme reflects the change from childhood to adult and attitudes toward sex as the female character has to overcome her fear of sex before she can fall in love.

In the end, the clocksmith was to blame.’

In the world of Language of Thorns there is not always a happy ending, as in life. Endings come and new beginnings, but we don’t all end up as beautiful princesses. Sometimes awful people are just that, awful people. Finding meaning in fairy tales is the main challenge for the reader and it is much better that these meanings are more real than spreading the Disney belief in happy ever after.

You wish to strike a bargain, and so you come north, until the land ends, and you can go no further.’

The final story in Language of Thorns is a retelling of the backstory of a well known fairy tale and Disney movie. It shows us the humanity and emotions that drive even the most villanous characters. It is a shock when we find out who the protagonist really is, but I think the most important message is how society attacks women for not conforming to patriarchal expectations.

There is so much in Language of Thorns. It is beautifully written in the style of fairy tales and I can appreciate what sort of skill and effort that requires. These are stories to revisit on a cold, dark, lonely night. Just don’t expect a prince to come to your rescue.

The Witch in the Mirror – Part 43

Ailis ran until her feet were sore. She was deep into the forest now, further than she’d ever been before. Every now and then she had to stop, leaning against a tree and panting until she had gotten her breath back. The forest stretched on and on around the edge of the lake, further than she could ever have imagined.

Surely she had lost the soldiers by now. They had nearly caught her this time. She was merely floating, just like she did every day when she could sneak away from her chores. She stood on the rock at the edge of the lake and just let herself hover in the air. She never went too far or too high. She didn’t want anyone seeing her or discovering she had magic. It was peaceful in the air. She felt more like herself—where she could imagine she was secretly a princess rather than just a blacksmith’s daughter.

But this time she had gotten careless and had drifted lazily toward the treetops. That is when she first saw the men in black cloaks. She had heard all about these men that wore black cloaks. The villagers were all terrified of them. And the worst of the lot was that sergeant with the scar on his left cheek. Three jagged lines—almost like someone had scratched him viciously, or in desperation, Ailis thought. She had made the mistake of looking up as he rode through the village once. He had stared at her with those dead eyes as though he wanted to devour her.

When Ailis saw the horsemen through the trees she quickly returned to the ground and started to run. She knew she could have flown away from them but she couldn’t be seen in the air.

Ailis heard a noise and began to run again. Her plan was to circle back around to the village and return by the coastal path. As Ailis neared the village she stopped running. She ran her hands over her skirt and blouse to straighten it and adjusted the scarf around her hair. She stopped by a wild apple tree and filled her basket. It would be a ready excuse if anybody stopped her. She tried to calm the fear in her stomach.

The sun rose high in the sky when she caught the scent of wood smoke from the village. Ailis heaved a sigh of relief. Just over the next rise and she would be back in the village safe and sound.

Ailis left the forest and walked across the field of heath that ran down to the beach. In the distance she could see the village’s fishing boats bobbing on the open sea. They wouldn’t return until evening with their catch.

She could hear hammering from the blacksmith’s forge and she smiled. It wasn’t so bad being the blacksmith’s daughter. It could have been worse. Bryn was a highly respected artisan in the village and that afforded Ailis more freedom from menial chores than some of the other girls her age.

Ailis took an apple from her basket and was just about to take a bite when she saw the four horsemen blocking her path.

‘You there. Girl. Stop.’

Ailis shuddered when she saw it was the man with the scar. She was frozen to the spot.

‘What business do you have out here? We have been hunting a young girl seen in the forest. What do you have to say for yourself?’

‘I—I was just fetching apples. To make my Da a pie.’ She tried to control the nervousness in her voice.

‘A likely story. Who is your da?’

‘The—the blacksmith—Bryn—the blacksmith.’

The sergeant looked at her more closely, searching her face. His black gloved hand involuntarily stroked the scars on his cheek.

‘How old are you, girl?’

Ailis felt tears well into her eyes but forced them back down. The pendant between her breasts was turning hot.

‘Just take her here, Hom. Nobody need ever know.’ The second horsemen leered at her. Ailis fought back the urge to wet herself.

‘This little one is not worth your effort.’

A woman appeared behind the horsemen. Hom turned in his saddle to see who dared address the black cloaks. It was just another peasant woman. Hom drew his sword. The sun glinted wickedly on the blade. He smiled viciously to feel its familiar weight in his hand.

‘Why don’t you go about your business, old woman, before I slay you right here.’

‘You don’t want to kill anyone today.’ She moved her hand from under her cloak. ‘Return to your camp.’

Hom looked at her uncertainly for a moment before sheathing his sword.

‘Come, men. Let us return to camp. We will take the wench another day.’

He glared at the woman and turned his horse. The four men rode away in a cloud of dust.

Ailis collapsed to her knees with shock.

The woman cupped her hand around Ailis’ chin and raised the girl to her feet.

‘Run home, child. You need to take more care with your gift. It’s not your time yet, but soon.’

Ailis looked questioningly into the woman’s eyes. They were dark but flecked with blue, like snowflakes.

‘Go.’

Ailis found her feet moving quickly toward the village. She looked back over her shoulder.

The woman was gone.

The Witch in the Mirror – Part 41

The mountain peaks were shrouded by mist at this time of year. The sun was a soft golden globe hanging low in the sky and the water of the stream was cold and grey. All was quiet except for the faint sound of a girl’s voice singing as she made her way along the path toward the stream.

Ailis’ heart was full of love and her face shone in the dull morning light. Only last night Rogan had proposed to her and she had been breathless as she replied with a whispered ‘yes’.

She had woken early in the morning so she could get all of her errands done before her father returned from his blacksmith’s forge to have breakfast. She wanted to put him in a good mood for when Rogan comes to ask for her hand.

Ailis stopped to pick some wildflowers and placed them in her hair. She walked with a light-hearted step and smiled as she thought about the secret kisses Rogan had showered her with last night. She was excited to think of being the first of her friends in the village to be married. Most of them still hadn’t even held hands with a boy yet.

She reached the edge of the lake and stooped to fill the heavy wooden bucket. As water streamed over the edge of the bucket she struggled to lift it again, when a rough hand closed over hers. She turned with surprise as Rogan placed his lips against hers and the bucket fell back into the water.

‘Rogan, look what you’ve made me do!’ The bucket had begun to sink and Ailis pouted with her hands on her hips.

‘You are out early my love. I was hoping I might catch you before I saw your father.’

‘You will catch it if my father sees you with me.’ Her laugh was musical and Rogan grasped her around the waist and kissed her again.

‘Stop that,’ she squealed. ‘What about my bucket?’

Rogan bent to retrieve the sunken bucket. ‘Come, my sweet. You have work to do.’ He took Ailis’ hand and together they walked back toward the village.

The village was nestled around a small, windswept cove. Through the mist could be heard the roar of dark waves crashing on the pebbly beach. A path led away from the village toward the mountains where the shepherds took their flocks during the warmer months when the grass was flush and green. But they returned to the valley farms when the autumn mists began to descend.

Rogan was one of the shepherds and he had recently returned from several months in the mountains. But there was wasn’t much to occupy a shepherd during the winter months and he spent his days finding excuses to be alone with Ailis.

Ailis looked at him secretly as they strolled along the country path. He had wild black hair that shaded his mysterious eyes. Those eyes always seemed to be looking straight through her and Ailis shivered every time their gaze met. She never knew what he was thinking, but she felt hypnotised by his eyes; trapped by his gaze like a frightened deer; stripped naked so that he could see her soul — and then the spell would be broken by his rough kiss.

As they reached the door of Ailis’ cottage, Rogan bent to kiss her again.

‘No more until you have spoken to father,’ she said. Rogan grinned and Ailis curtseyed as she slipped through the door into the white washed cottage. Ailis closed the door and leaned against it with closed eyes and sighed. She had never been so happy and now all her dreams were coming true.

She pushed a lock of hair back into place and began to tidy the kitchen and prepare breakfast. The cottage was simple as befitted a blacksmith, but Ailis always kept it neat and tidy. She had been the housekeeper since her mother had passed away. Ever since then it had just been Ailis and her father.

Rogan stayed outside the door of the cottage for a moment, listening to Ailis singing as she worked inside. He picked up a stone and began tossing it in the air and catching it again. The ringing of the blacksmith’s hammer on the anvil punctuated the peaceful village air and Rogan turned away from the forge. Now is not the time to face the blacksmith, he decided.

The Witch in the Mirror – Part 40

Bea hurried to catch up with Emily.

‘Emily, wait up. We need to talk.’

Emily tried to hurry away. She didn’t want Bea to see the tears that were forming.

Bea grabbed Emily’s hand to stop her.

‘We have to get to class.’ She turned but Bea held her hand tightly.

‘What’s going on, Em?’

Before Emily could reply, Anar appeared in the corridor.

‘Well!’ exclaimed Anar. ‘If it isn’t the lesbian witches. You two disgust me.’

‘Why don’t you just leave us alone, Anar?’ Beatrice quickly let go of Emily’s hand.

‘Just leave it, Emily.’

‘No,’ Emily almost shouted. ‘I’m done with running away. It’s time you learned a lesson.’ She reached out and stroked Anar’s hair. ‘Such pretty hair —it would be a shame if it all fell out.’

Anar’s eyes smouldered.

‘—and that pretty face of yours, Anar—I would hate to see it all covered in spots before your next party. Too bad you don’t know any protection spells.’

Emily raised her hand and began chanting, ‘Princess, princess, let down your hair. By the light of the moon you will find yourself bare. By light of the moon you’ll be covered in spots.’

Light shone in Emily’s eyes. She finished and laughed as she took Bea’s hand and walked away.

‘How dare you!’ she heard Anar call after her, but she sounded more distressed than angry.

Miss Elizabeth stood at the window of her classroom and watched the girls go their separate ways. This was getting out of hand.

The Witch in the Mirror – Part 38

Rogan was a tall, solid man. His thick black hair curled to his neck and framed his rugged but handsome face. He was a shepherd and spent the summer months with the flocks on the mountain pastures while dreaming of the maidens in the village. The time would soon come when Rogan would take a maiden of his own and settle into one of the cottages of Nangle Farm. As a married man he would get privileges that weren’t available to the single men.

He watched the girl from the edge of the crowd. She intrigued him. After that initial shock when he realised she was a witch he had found himself more and more drawn to her. That first vision had been several weeks ago and lately he found he couldn’t stop himself from watching her through the trees as she fetched her pail of water each morning.

Now it was the May Day dance and all the neighbouring villages had gathered on Nangle common to celebrate the spring solstice. All of the young women from the villages were gathered in a circle around the maypole. With colourful streamers in their hands they danced with the spirit of life – body and soul celebrating the renewal of the Goddess.

Ailis’ face was glowing with rapture as she pirouetted lightly behind the other dancers. Her white gown floated like a butterfly in the breeze. Her voice rose and fell as she moved around the circle.

Rogan moved to the other side of the square and climbed on the wheel of a cart to get a better view. From his vantage point he could clearly see Ailis’ face framed by that auburn hair that entranced him so much. It seemed that energy flowed from the centre of the circle through each of the dancing women. The watching crowd was also affected by the energy and groups of young men began to be filled with desire for love.

Ailis was giddy from the emotion and energy that filled her. The colourful crowd spun past her eyes with dizzying speed. Gradually the dancers slowed. The chanting of the crowd grew louder. Ailis was breathing heavily as her footsteps came to a standstill with her arms outstretched like a cross. In one hand she held the ribbon connecting to the maypole. The other held a posy of flowers. Ailis looked up to see clouds swiftly passing the crescent moon. The stars nearby were shaped like a silver wheel. She felt the joy bursting in her heart.

Ailis lowered her eyes until she was suddenly looking directly into the face of a young man standing on a cart wheel. For a moment his eyes locked on hers and she felt of thrill of electricity run through her chest. She quickly looked away.

The young woman beside Ailis was laughing as she grasped her hand. Her eyes were bright, framed by blue-black hair that curled past her shoulders.

‘Which of the young men do you have your eye on, Aily? I feel tonight I will be blessed by the Goddess.’

Ailis blushed and looked at the ground.

The Witch in the Mirror – Part 35

Beatrice decided she wanted to get to know Josh. The way his music moved her—she needed to learn more about this boy. She had found out his name from Emily. Bea had casually asked Emily to tell her about some of the kids in the class.

Emily said she didn’t know much. She usually kept away from them, she said, because they were mostly the children of rich parents—spoilt children whose parents could afford this expensive school. She didn’t have time for any of them.

‘What about that scruffy guy over there?’ Bea had said, casually pointing at Josh. ‘He doesn’t look rich.’

Emily had admitted they weren’t all spoilt. Bea suspected it was a way for Emily to justify her attitude to herself.

‘His name is Josh. His mother is the school librarian. That’s how he can afford to come here and why he’s always hanging about the school late in the afternoon—waiting for his mum I guess.’

The librarian! Bea made a plan.

That afternoon as soon as the final bell went Bea packed her bag and rushed to the library. Sure enough, there was Josh sitting on a bench just outside the library. The cello case was on the ground beside him.

Bea stopped for a moment to catch her breath then walked casually up to him.

‘Hi, is the library shut already?’ She knew it was.

Josh was startled.

He just nodded.

‘Oh, damn. I’ll just have to take these books back tomorrow.’ She had several books tucked under her arm.

Josh was looking uncomfortably at her.

‘Is that your cello? I heard you playing in the music room the other day.’

Josh’s face relaxed a little. ‘Yeah, it’s new. I only got it a few weeks ago.’

‘I think the cello is the most amazing instrument. It produces such beautiful music. It makes me want to sing.’

Josh was amazed. No girl had ever spoken this much to him before.

‘Do you sing?’

‘Not really,’ said Bea, ‘At least—I don’t think so.’

Josh frowned.

‘Do you ever perform in public? I love hearing the cello played.’

‘I’m in the school orchestra. Actually—’ Josh hesitated. He could feel his heart racing. ‘I’m playing at the Fireworks Spectacular on the weekend. Are you going?’

‘I haven’t decided yet. Emily wants me to go.’

‘Oh—yeah—Emily.’

Josh lowered his eyes.

Bea looked at him curiously.

‘Well, I guess I should be going. I have to catch my bus. Maybe I’ll see you at the fireworks on Saturday.’

Josh nodded and Bea smiled as she turned and walked away. Her red hair bounced against her shoulders as she moved and Josh felt a warm glow spread throughout his chest.

He reached into his bag and pulled out a notepad and began scribbling down some music—this piece was going to soar like magic spinning across the sun. He needed to get home and begin practicing it so he could play it for Bea on Saturday night.

The Witch in the Mirror – Part 34

Emily was smiling as she sat on the edge of the bathtub. Candles illuminated the bathroom. Flower petals floated on the steamy surface of the water. She had been left alone in the house while her mother was out with Dave. That was her chance to study the book she had found in her locker. She assumed it had been a present from Bea.

The book had a single crescent moon printed on its cover. No title or anything to indicate what it was. She couldn’t believe her eyes when she realised it was a notebook. The pages were covered in handwritten scrawl and drawings, just like the one she had found in the cottage.

But unlike the other book this one was full of spells. Emily took off her coat and threw it on the sofa. She curled up with her feet underneath her bottom and began to flick through the book. A small packet fell out and when she opened it Emily found a silver chain with a pendant in the shape of a crescent. It was the same as the pendant she’d gotten from the antique shop. She stood at the mirror and placed the chain around her neck.

When Emily went to bed that night her head was full of happiness spells, love spells, wish spells—but best of all was the page titled memory spell.

 

Herbs for sleeping and dreaming – hops (dream pillow), passion flower, camomile, lavender, peppermint, poppy seeds, willow

 

Emily let her gaze return to the steaming bathtub. She could still picture the tattoo on the back of her neck.

Emily whispered.

‘Goddess, send me your gifts.’

She looked around the room and her eyes came to rest on the chair. Even in the dim candlelight she could see the book propped against the back of the chair.

Through the thin walls of the apartment she could hear children playing.

Emily thought about her mother. The long hours she worked to keep food on the table and Emily in school. When she could, Emily would create a money spell and her mother would never have to work again.

Emily stood and slipped off her robe. She turned to see if she could see the back of her neck in the mirror. She couldn’t see it, but it was still tingling. Instead she studied her body. She could see the outline of her ribs, the soft layer across her stomach. She sucked it in then ran her fingers across the tattoo that was tingling at the back of her neck.

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