In this YA fantasy, a teenager suspects that the woman next door and her family are witches.
Fifteen-year-old Matt Mitchell and his twin sister, Tina, are still grieving from the loss of their mother. But their depressed father, Sam, wants no reminders of his wife, so he moves the family from Oregon to Hawthorne, Indiana. Matt is a target for high school bullies Clayton Cartwright, Colin O’Connell, and Dylan Jones and hears rumors that his next-door neighbor, Old Lady Hawthorne, is a witch who, years ago, murdered her husband and his lover. But with the Mitchells’ finances tight, Matt offers to tend to his neighbor’s yard. The lady, Vivianne, proves accommodating and quite friendly, notwithstanding some eccentricities. Her niece, Gwendolyn, and her three kids soon leave Maine and move into Vivianne’s home, and Matt quickly befriends the boy his age, Gerallt. But it turns out there may be validity to the witch rumor. The Hawthornes are druids, capable of magic, and Gerallt believes the amulet he wears is a gift from the Celtic goddess Modron. Casting spells against bullies certainly has benefits, but the Hawthornes won’t like Gerallt revealing family secrets to Matt, whom they consider an “outsider.” Firesmith’s (Hell Holes, 2016, etc.) novel, an absorbing tale of two diverse friends, smartly downplays the fantastical elements. Gerallt, for example, views the magic as simply part of his religion and rightly takes offense when Matt suggests the amulet is “some kind of advanced alien tech.” While the book initially centers on Matt and Gerallt versus the bullies, it oddly splits into subplots resembling short stories (complete with their own resolutions): a stolen amulet, the reputed Hawthorne treasure, and a Tina-centric story. The author’s prose is lucid and descriptive, though its most notable quality is the Hawthornes’ pronounced New England lilt (“Gerallt knows bettah than tah call attention tah himself”). The story ends with several addenda, including lists of characters and Maine idioms, and the promise of further adventures with Matt and Gerallt
A satisfying tale that aptly balances teen drama with a bit of magic.