I had the opportunity to read a digital ARC of this novel by Kelly Barnhill and I have to say that this book is just awesome! To be honest, I usually wouldn't be attracted to this type of book. However, so many of my students love fantasy books with dragons, witches, and magic that I love the idea of finding a new book for them to devour. I've also heard a lot of great things about this book from my friends on Twitter.
From the very beginning of the book, I was hooked on this story. When the story opens, it is the Day of Sacrifice in the Protectorate. Each year, the parents of the youngest child in the village are required to surrender their baby as an offering to the witch who lives in the forest. They must do this in order to keep her from destroying the Protectorate. It is heart wrenching to witness this scene: the Council of Elders have arrived at the home of the sacrificial child, the desperate mother has climbed to the rafters of the house clinging to her baby girl, the soldiers capture the mother and have her sent to the Tower, and the Grand Elder Gherland carries the baby away. They carry the baby into the forest and leave her, lying on the ground to be taken by the witch.
The people of the Protectorate don't realize that the witch in the forest, Xan, is a kind old woman. She lives with Glerk, the wise swamp monster, and Fyrian, a Tiny Dragon. Every year, Xan rescues these abandoned babies and takes them to kind and welcoming families on the other side of the forest. She feeds the babies starlight, to strengthen them during this journey.
This year, Xan takes the child that we've just seen ripped from the arms of her mother on this annual journey. Along the way, she accidently feeds the girl moonlight, which immediately fills her with extraordinary magic. Xan decides to take the girl, whom she has named Luna, home with her, instead of to a family on the other side of the forest. For the safety of everyone, Xan has locked up the magic inside Luna. On her thirteenth birthday, her magic will emerge, with powerful consequences.
This book is filled with magic, suspense and adventure. A young man from the Protectorate, Antain, is determined to find the deadly witch that is responsible for so much unhappiness in his village and kill her. Once I was swept into this story, it was hard to put it down until I was finished with it.
This is a book that I have to get for my classroom library. Not only does it have the action and adventure that so many of my students love, it has some excellent messages and themes for them to take away from it. My favorite theme is the power of hope in the face of darkness and sorrow. There is so much in this book and in our world that threaten to make people want to throw up their hands and give in to fear and despair. When we watch the evening news and see all of the violence in places like Orlando, Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas, it's easy to feel like there's nothing that can be done to make things better. The characters in this book, realize that they can't give up or sorrow will win.
I know that this book has lifted my spirits, after several days and weeks of heartbreaking news of violence. It has made me want to continue to find ways to show kids that kindness and hope are still better ways to settle conflicts than fighting. Glerk, the wise swamp monster, is a terrific role model for this. One of my favorite quotes from the book:
Calling a truce was "preferable for Glerk, who felt that violence, while sometimes necessary, was uncouth and uncivilized. Reason, beauty, poetry, and excellent conversation were his preferred tools for settling disputes."
Hardback, 400 pages
Available August 9, 2016 from Algonquin Books