“Luke’s final test is to pick a name at random from the Book of Witches, a name he must track down and kill within a month, or face death himself.”
Witch Finder by Ruth Warburton
Luke Lexton has the unique ability to find witches because he can see the magic flowing around them. You can see an awesome animation of this ability in the book cover above! (Rosa’s magic is described as flames). He is recruited by the Malleus Maleficorum, a brotherhood devoted to hunting down and killing witches. Luke is put through three trials to determine if he is worthy of becoming a brother of the Malleus Maleficorum. Luke successfully passes the trial by sword and the trial by fire during the initiation. For the trial by hammer, Luke is blindfolded and given a pin to choose a witch’s name from their dossier. Luke prays he will choose the name of the witch who murdered his parents, but instead he picks Rosa Greenwood, a sixteen year old witch who is connected to the most powerful witch family, Knyvet. Although attempting to kill Rosa is a suicide mission for a novice, the brotherhood claim God has spoken. Luke is given a new name and sent to work as a stable hand at the Greenwood house. Will Luke be able to kill Rosa? The brotherhood has made it clear that it’s either Rosa’s life or Luke’s life.
I was intrigued by Witch Finder when I spotted the book in the library recently. I’ve been on a bit of a witch-binge lately, and I hadn’t read a book about witches set in the past. I loved the idea of a brotherhood devoted to hunting down and killing witches, and I was excited by how Luke would manage to battle a witch given that he is not a witch. I have to say that Witch Finder didn’t quite live up to the blurb on the jacket. I was expecting a great deal of magic in the book, yet the only spells that are shown are mundane spells like lighting a fire, healing spells, cleaning spells, memory loss spells, and spells that simulate telekinesis. I believe this is because witches are being hunted down and killed, so the witches are careful about using their magic. I would have liked to have seen more impressive magic behind closed doors. Aside from the witches/magic, the witch-hunting was also not what I expected. Luke arranges “accidents” for Rosa in an attempt to kill her. This did work because Luke didn’t want to be discovered as a witch hunter. However, I would have liked there to be more “tricks of the trade” as such that he could have used, or perhaps some magic that would have made him more of a threat.
Additionally, the plot itself is essentially what it says on the cover and no more. Luke is a witch-hunter and he needs to kill Rosa by the next full moon or be killed himself because he’ll have betrayed the brotherhood. There aren’t many sub-plots in Witch Finder. There’s the sub-plot of Rosa dealing with the expectations of women at the time (e.g., marrying for financial security rather than love) and a romance, but other than that the plot is rather simply. As a result, the book isn’t as interesting as it could be. There are a few references to a witch council and rules that witches much abide by, but these are just passing references. I think the book would have been better if the witch community had been more prominent in the story.
I liked the characters that Ruth Warburton created, but I didn’t love them. Rosa was sweet and innocent, and as the book progressed, she grew up to some extent. She started to stand up for herself rather than abiding by her family’s wishes. I liked this character development, particularly because within the era that the book is set (1880), women didn’t have many rights and were really the property of men. However, I would have liked this character development to start sooner, especially given that Rosa is a witch. Rosa only really decides to go against her family’s wishes in the last 50 pages of the book. Rosa is a very powerful witch, more powerful than her own mother, yet she doesn’t use that power to stand up for herself. I think that some hard-core feminists might have trouble reading this book because Rosa really does conform to what is expected of her. However, overall, I think that if you accept the book in the historical context that it is written, the obedience that Rosa shows does work.
Luke is pretty forgettable really which is strange given he’s one of the two main characters and half of the book is set from his POV. I felt that Luke didn’t really have a distinctive voice and his personality didn’t really shine. I did enjoy the personal struggles that he went through. He learns that while some witches are evil, other witches are good. He recognizes the human qualities in Rosa and, as a result, he struggles over whether to kill her or not. I liked the conflict between the teachings of the brotherhood and Luke’s own experiences of Rosa.
As Witch Finder is a young adult book, I did expect there to be a romance between Luke and Rosa. However, there was no build up to the romance. I could see Luke questioning his beliefs about witches, but there weren’t enough moments where Luke and Rosa connected to build the chemistry and warrant the quick development of love. There needed to be more physical attraction between Rosa and Luke, and more internal dialogue showing the things that Luke and Rosa liked about each other. They really didn’t know each other very well!
The villain in the story was Sebastian. The most salient villainous quality to Sebastian’s character was his cruelty. He very much wanted to own Rosa as if she was his property (e.g. the ring he gives her tightens when she tries to remove it!) because he liked the fear he instilled in her. Sebastian is also cruel to his servants and animals. The abuse that the servants and animals endure fosters the reader to hate Sebastian, the villain in the story, I feel the author went a little too far a times. For example, near to the beginning of the book, Sebastian literally beats a puppy to death with his riding crop and tosses the corpse in the bushes. This scene was really unsettling. I appreciate that this establishes Sebastian’s cruelty loud and clear, but I believe his cruelty could have been established in a less vile and disgusting manner. For example, Sebastian could have used his magic more and taken the role of the villainous witch he was meant to be anyway; however, the reader rarely sees Sebastian use magic. Instead, Sebastian became a much more human villain and the book took on a much darker tone than necessary given this is a children’s/young adult book. This may just be my personal preferences not to read books or watch films with animal cruelty in them. I burst into tears and literally sobbed when I watched the Life of Pi movie and the hyena killed the other animals. I’d be interested to know if this bothered anyone else when reading the book! Let me know in the comments.
You can read the first chapter of Witch Finder on Ruth Warburton’s website. Here is the link: http://www.hachettechildrensdigital.co.uk/downloads/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2013/10/Witch-Finder.pdf
Final Verdict: A dark and unsettling story that doesn’t exactly deliver what the blurb on the jacket cover implies.