Written by: Matt Ralphs
Published in the UK by: MacMillan Children’s Books, 2015
Set in an alternative seventeenth century England over a decade after a Witch War where all Wielders were purged by Cromwell’s army, 11 year old Hazel Hooper has been brought up by her magic-using mother in an isolated enclave of Wychwood Forest. When her sole guardian is snatched by a vicious demon, Hazel must leave behind all that she has ever known and set off into the big wide world with only a grumpy dormouse called Bramley for company, to bring her mother home.
First time author Matt Ralphs has constructed a dense and well-realised (if hardly original) olde worlde universe for his characters to inhabit. The world-building fusion of historical research with fantastical embellishments helps to ground some of Fire Girl’s more out-there aspects into a more relatable read for its young audience.
Discovering she is endowed with a fiery ‘gift’ she has yet to adjust to, much less hone, young Hazel has not only demons and wicked adversaries to contend with, but also the Witch Hunter’s who roam the land hoping to collect a bounty for any Wielder’s who escaped the purge. Desperately alone in a strange and dangerous new world with no plan and no-one to turn to, Hazel’s never-say-die spirit in the face of persistent adversity is commendable and makes her an endearing and heroic protagonist, whilst her sharp-tongued familiar Bramley makes for an amusing and spunky, scene-stealing counterpart.
As Hazel ventures beyond the hedge and enters the communities of Wychwood and Rivenpike, she must choose who to trust and who to flee from as all manner of supernatural dilemmas threaten to derail her quest, from poisonous Spider demons to doll-trapped souls calling out to their zombified mortal remains! As diverse and dynamic as these scenarios are, I did start to lose faith in Ralphs’ overtly sequential structuring as the chapters began to rack up in a rather episodic fashion.
However, as Fire Girl progressed, the sense of peril becomes palpable and the scale escalates to a scintillating climatic apex, with elements established in earlier chapters reappearing to find satisfactory relevance to the greater story arc (the grieving Woodsman and the abandoned cabin in the woods being prime examples), rewarding eagle-eyed readers who pay attention.
With this first novel concluding with a heart-rending sacrifice and a shocking twist, we are left with a clear signpost for where Hazel’s ripening adventure will take her next – down into the Underworld. It’s an enticing prospect and a journey I will certainly be joining her on when the sequel Fire Witch bursts onto bookshelves in August.