“The Apprentice Witch” by James Nicol

The Apprentice Witch is a debut middle-grade fantasy novel that was recently published on July 25. Back in June, I believe, I saw an ARC giveaway in one of the many bookish newsletters I’m subscribed to and entered not expecting that I would be granted a copy of the novel.

The eye-catching cover called to me and I began reading the book soon after receiving it. I was immediately hooked. It’s the sort of fantasy story I’ve been searching for. It’s sweet and simple and set in a quirky village that makes me long for the fantasy novels I read and enjoyed as a kid.

Goodreads summary:

A special middle grade debut of magic and courage in a world of witches, written with the charm and enchantment of Circus Mirandus and The Apothecary.

Arianwyn has flunked her witch’s assessment: She’s doomed. Declared an apprentice and sent to the town of Lull in disgrace, she may never become a real witch — much to the glee of her arch-rival, Gimma.

But remote Lull is not as boring as it seems. Strange things are sighted in the woods, a dangerous infestation of hex creeps throughout the town, and a mysterious magical visitor arrives with his eye on her.

With every spirit banished, creature helped, and spell cast, Arianwyn starts to get the hang of being a witch–even if she’s only an apprentice. But the worst still lies ahead. For a sinister darkness has begun to haunt her spells, and there may be much more at stake than just her pride . . . for Arianwyn and the entire land. (Goodreads)

My thoughts:

This is a hard review to write because though I enjoyed the novel and will read the next book (I think it will be a series) and will probably purchase a completed copy for myself, there are some faults in the plot that make me a bit reluctant to recommend it to others.

And since I read an ARC copy, I’m not sure how much I should let those faults affect my review since the ARC isn’t the final copy. As such, please bear in mind that the faults I mention below might be rectified by the final copy.

As I said above, I really enjoyed this story. I love the setting and would like to see a map of it and learn more about the world and the magical creatures in it. I also like that the time it’s set in is somewhat modern. There are automobiles and telephones and a typewriter was mentioned. I couldn’t tell what period it’s set in (it’s certainly not in the present because more advanced technologies aren’t mentioned), but from what I read, I got the impression that the story could evolve to have a steampunk vibe to it.

Apart for the setting, the plot also held my interest. I love stories in which the underdog triumphs or the protagonist learns to value their abilities or learns that she is special and must save everyone. I’m a sucker for those tropes. And it was great to see the protagonist, Arianwyn, steadily learn to believe in herself and trust in her abilities.

The Apprentice Witch also does a great job of showing young readers that failure is not always a horrible thing. Though Arianwyn failed her witch’s assessment, she later valued the lessons she was taught more than others who had quickly passed the test. (However, I wish this element of the story was stronger.) I think this is an important lesson to impart to kids these days so they don’t think failure is the end but instead look at it as a new beginning, as Arianwyn eventually did.

Much as I’d like to end the review here, I must mention other less savory things. Starting with the protagonist, Arianwyn, who I didn’t like much. She is whiney and a touch bratty toward her grandmother, who acts as her guardian since her mother died and her father is away fighting a war. There’s also not much dimension to her character and by the end, I thought her quite undeveloped.

I think part of the problem with Arianwyn is that we don’t see how some of the relationships she has develop. We are basically told she and Salle, a villager from Lull, are close friends rather than shown how they grew so close, and I found it hard to believe that Arianwyn took such a quick liking to Gimma, who bullied her at school and also before Arianwyn took her witch’s assessment. Those side characters could use a bit more development as well.

Though the plot is moderately paced, at times it jumped too far ahead without sufficient explanation. And though we are told demons are dangerous and rifts between worlds shouldn’t be left open for long, the characters don’t show any urgency in getting rid of such creatures or closing a rift. It made it hard to know what to anticipate and sometimes I’d grow anxious about what would happen next when a threat is mentioned, but because the characters take a while to deal with it, I felt as if I was anxious for nothing.

I liked the inclusion of spirit animals and other magical creatures and I thought Arianwyn’s pet spirit hare was cute (well, in my mind it is). We’re told the hare is powerful, but aren’t shown any evidence of this so I found it hard to believe it is or that it reveals anything about Arianwyn. I thought it was simply in the story for its cuteness, which I was okay with.

Though I’m not a fan of glossaries in novels, I would have liked a glossary of magical creatures and demons in this one (maybe it’s included in the final copy). It would help to convince me that the worldbuilding is fleshed out and let me quickly know about the creatures in it.

Overall: ★★★☆☆

That’s quite a high rating for a book I saw lots of faults in, but I really liked it and it made me so nostalgic for books I read as a kid (I can’t remember the titles though I’ve been trying for years to) that I couldn’t help myself.

As I’ve mentioned many times on here, my star ratings are based on my enjoyment of the book and this rating reflects that with some consideration toward how it’s written.

Buy | Borrow | Bypass

This is another tough one. I liked the book, but I’m not sure if others will too, especially considering my critiques above. So I’d say borrow it from the library and see if you want to keep reading or bypass it.


8 thoughts on ““The Apprentice Witch” by James Nicol

  1. Glad to see that you enjoyed this thoroughly, even with all its shortcomings. It does sound like a fun story (the cover is absolutely amazing too). Hopefully its sequel will be far superior and will have less problems related to the plot. Great review! 🙂


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