Image: Three young people run across a red desert; in the background, a silver falcon spreads its wings over a dark castle. Text: "Curse of the Night Witch. Emblem Island. Alex Aster."

KidLit Book Review: Curse of the Night Witch by Alex Aster


Synopsis

On Emblem Island all are born knowing their fate. Their lifelines show the course of their life and an emblem dictates how they will spend it.

Twelve-year-old Tor Luna was born with a leadership emblem, just like his mother. But he hates his mark and is determined to choose a different path for himself. So, on the annual New Year’s Eve celebration, where Emblemites throw their wishes into a bonfire in the hopes of having them granted, Tor wishes for a different power.

The next morning Tor wakes up to discover a new marking on his skin…the symbol of a curse that has shortened his lifeline, giving him only a week before an untimely death. There is only one way to break the curse, and it requires a trip to the notorious Night Witch.

With only his village’s terrifying, ancient stories as a guide, and his two friends Engle and Melda by his side, Tor must travel across unpredictable Emblem Island, filled with wicked creatures he only knows through myths, in a race against his dwindling lifeline.


Details

  • Title: Curse of the Night Witch
  • Series: Emblem Island, Book 1
  • Author: Alex Aster
  • Cover Artist: Fiona Hsieh
  • Publisher: Sourcebooks Young Readers
  • ISBN: 1492697206
  • Publication Date: June 9, 2020
  • For Ages: 8-12
  • Category: Middle Grade
  • Spooky-Scary or Spooky-Fun? 🎃 Fun.

I’d like to thank Sourcebooks Young Readers for providing a copy via NetGalley in exchange for review consideration.


Review

Emblem Island is an incredible place full of magic, color, and adventure. It can also be a dangerous, treacherous place…especially if you’ve been cursed by the Night Witch, like Tor and his friends have been. Most Emblemites are born with an emblem somewhere on their body, a birthmark that indicates an ability—like singing beautifully, cooking like a master chef, or even breathing underwater—that determines your course in life. Tor, son of his village’s chieftess, was born with a leadership emblem just like his mother’s. He hates it, though, and he wants more than anything to change his fate. So on the annual Eve celebration, when Emblemites submit a wish to the gods, Tor wishes for a different emblem.

In a chilling instance of “be careful what you wish for,” Tor gets a nasty shock the next morning. Instead of the water-breathing emblem that he so desperately wants, he receives a curse: a blinking eye on his wrist that he learns is a malevolent gift from the fearsome Night Witch. She is the most frightening monster in the Book of Cuentos, the formative book of folklore that all Emblemites use as a guide to life on the island. When he accidentally passes his curse to his friends Engle and Melda, Tor must use the Book of Cuentos to find the Night Witch and convince her to remove the curse before all three of their lifelines run out.

To find the witch, the friends go on an odyssey from their beautiful village by the ocean to the bleakest, scariest parts of the island. Author Alex Aster cannily intersperses tales from the Book of Cuentos between the group’s adventures, introducing the reader to the monsters the friends are about to encounter in increasingly terrifying stories. Letting the readers know what’s ahead, and what these monsters are capable of, adds a tremendous level of tension and suspense to an already exciting read. I raced through this book, and I’d be willing to bet you’ll do the same.

Emblem Island is a fascinating location. I selfishly wished that Aster would have spent more time exploring the different cultures there, because it’s such a thrilling, vibrant place, but the book is paced so well and the descriptions are so vivid that it ultimately felt like the perfect amount of world-building. I’m eager for the next book, not only because I can’t wait to go back and learn more about the island, but also because the ending was so clever and so surprising that I’m going to be on pins and needles waiting to find out what happens next.

The book’s nuanced look at the nature of stories (and at the motives of storytellers) is a delight, asking the reader to simultaneously think more critically and be more open-minded about folktales. Curse of the Night Witch is a rousing, spooky adventure that examines the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we tell others. It shows its readers that the world is more complicated and more amazing than we realize, and that you can always change your fate…but you may not like what happens when you do.


Rating

What emblem would you want? I give this book 4.5 out of 5 coffins.

4.5 Coffins


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