Written by: Matt Ralphs, 2016
Published in the UK by: Macmillan Children Books
NO ORDINARY GIRL
In the Acknowledgements at the rear of Matt Ralphs’ recent sequel to his 2015 breakout hit, Fire Girl (which I reviewed HERE), the blossoming children’s author openly acknowledges the “breakneck speed” at which his editors at Macmillan Children’s Books dictated he write the follow up. Whereas he was able to spend close to five years “scribbling feverishly” on his debut during his spare time, following a publication deal he had a turnaround period of just one-fifth of that time in which to spin a successive yarn.
This could set alarm bells ringing that Fire Witch falls foul of sophomore syndrome, but having just put it down, I can confidently allay such fears: at no time does it feel forced or rushed. Pacey, purposeful and polished, this continuation of young questing Hazel Hooper’s magical adventures improves on Girl by hanging together as a story in a far more harmonious and less episodic narrative.
With her mother, Hecate, dragged down into the underworld by a demon at the death of book one, book two sees Hazel, her amiably spike-tongued familiar, Bramley, and the ale-fond Witch Finder with which she reluctantly joined forces, Titus, working together in order to craft a plan to re-open the gates to Hell.
Sumptuously padded with period detail which makes the olde worlde universe spring to life, Fire Witch does a grand job of inhabiting the London of 1656 introduced in Girl, and expanding on it. So we still have comforting references to characters and circumstances which occurred before (Titus’ deceitful apprentice, David, demonologist Nicholas Murrell, Frost Witch antagonist Lilith and her spider demon Spindle) while escalating the drama with all new threats, friends and foes.
Fearless, selfless and downright defiant, good-hearted Hazel is so committed to saving her mother that she frequently waltzes into the lion’s den in order to aid her rescue mission: disguising herself as a boy in order to infiltrate Matthew Hopkins’ Order of Witch Hunters and gain access to an imprisoned Murrell and trusting in the innate morality of a murderess demon-summoning foe are two prime instances which seriously toe the line between brilliant and foolhardy.
Ralph’s language is surprisingly advanced for a children’s book, and in plot as well as vocabulary he rarely panders to or patronises his young audience. The sole instance in which the story seemed to be simplifying the severity of the scenario (a returning character’s about-face from vengeance to repentance) is quickly usurped by an almost brutal climactic showdown in which many a character is slain.
Dangerous, delightful and deftly diverse, Fire Witch is a fascinating and thrilling fantasy follow-up and one which has well and truly whet my appetite for a threequel… not that I wish to pile any more pressure upon Matt Ralphs shoulders when it comes to impending deadlines!
CR@B’s Claw Score: