Cover of The Witch's Boy by Kelly Barnhill. The shadows of a girl with a boy, a boy with a staff, and a wolf, on the wall of a hill

About the Book

Title: The Witch’s Boy
Published: 2014

Cover Story: Cave Paintings
Drinking Buddy: Pass the Mead
MPAA Rating: Intense Battle Scenes
Talky Talk: Epic Quest
Bonus Factors: Political Intrigue, Unlikely Heroes
Bromance Status: Book Club Minority

Cover Story: Cave Paintings

I got a real ‘early human’ vibe from the cover, but the book actually takes place in a medieval time period in a fantasy world. I like the shadows of Ned, Aine, and the wolf as they head off on their adventure. This story could have easily been titled The Bandit’s Daughter.

The Deal:

Ned and Tam were identical twin boys, full of vim and vinegar. At the age of seven, they construct a raft to take them to the sea. The raft sinks of course, and the boys’ father only manages to pull Ned to safety. Tam is lost. As Ned struggles for life, his mother, the village witch, performs a spell that binds Tam’s soul to Ned’s, in order to save Ned’s life. But this is a bit of the dark arts. Tam is forever trapped between worlds, while Ned suffers from the binding. He can no longer read and he can barely speak without a stutter. The townspeople reject him as an idiot, and mutter that their father saved the wrong boy.

Meanwhile, in the haunted forest, a bandit raises an army to raid Ned’s town and to steal the witch’s magic, which she keeps trapped in a clay pot. The bandit’s daughter, Aine, doesn’t like this. She remembers the good man her father was before her mother died and he returned to his criminal ways. She’s desperate to find a way to foil  his plans and bring him back to her. Meanwhile, a foreign army marches towards their kingdom, determined to make them a vassal state.

Desperate to keep the magic out of the bandit army’s hands and to keep their people free, Ned and Aine, along with a mysteriously friendly wolf, head out on an adventure to save their neighbors. Even though the ungrateful jerks never did anything for them.

And then there are the stones. A half-dozen bodiless voices in the woods, watching and waiting…

Drinking Buddy: Pass the Mead

Two pints of beer cheersing

I like the two hapless heroes, thrust into a world much bigger than themselves. Ned, in order to prevent the bandit king from stealing the magic, allows himself to be possessed by it. Now he’s being plagued by disembodied voices, promising him great power and revenge, if he’d only use the magic. Meanwhile, Aine, an arrow shooting badass, resents being saddled with this stuttering fool…except she kind of doesn’t. She’s never had a friend before, and Ned is the first boy she’s ever met who wasn’t a burglar.

And then there’s the wolf. In a moment of panic, Aine shot a mother wolf. And now Ned shows up with a wolf pup for a companion. Is this animal there to get revenge? Shouldn’t she just kill it as well? But somehow she knows now is not the time for violence. That time is coming very soon.

Plus, there’s the benevolent queen of the kids’ country, the evil teenage king of the invading realm, and a cast of villagers, bandits, soldiers, and supernatural beings. A nice little sword and sorcery tale in non-epic format.

MPAA Rating: Intense Battle Scenes

Ned and Aine are about twelve or thirteen, so there’s nothing on that front. But with a massive army marching on Ned’s village and the haunted forest filled with thieves really cranks up the adrenaline. And that’s even before the stone giants show up. In the middle of it all are Ned, whom everyone has dismissed at a moron; Aine, who has always been taught to look out for number one, but can’t leave everyone to die; Ned’s mother, the town witch, who everyone ignores until they’re in desperate need of help; and the bandit king, the redheaded hulk who will do anything to gain wealth and power, but still loves his daughter, Aine. They can save the world, right?

Talky Talk: Epic Quest

Yes, it’s basically Lord of the Rings all over again, with two unlikely heroes trying to destroy some powerful magic while being pursued by much more powerful generals and sorcerers. But the characters are engaging, the plot moves quickly, and everything is over the top. I enjoyed it, despite what the naysayers in the Columbia, MO FYA book club thought.

Bonus Factor: Political Intrigue

President Barrett from West Wing standing behind his desk

So Ned’s village is under the protection of a benevolent, ancient queen, who unfortunately had a major health crisis while visiting the town. Ned’s mother revives her, and is invited to the capital to be honored. Unfortunately, the queen’s relatives are tired of waiting for the inevitable, and a witch would make a good scapegoat, should the queen have an ‘accident’. And with the witch gone from the town, the bandit can sneak in and steal her hidden cache of magic. But he’s being propped by the corrupt king of another realm, but only until the bandit can betray him. Meanwhile, the ancient powers that haunt the woods…well, you get it.

Bonus Factor: Unlikely Heroes

Ned, Aine, and a wolf against a trained army of thousands, a gang of blood thirsty cutthroats, and some disembodied spirits. I like those odds.

Bromance Status: Book Club Minority

I didn’t find you ‘plodding and confusing’. I liked you.

Literary Matchmaking


For another story of a bumbling yet earnest hero in training, read Tarnish, by J.D. Brink.


Varmints, by Andy Hirsch, is another quest story, set in the old West.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon

Another book by the same author, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, was better liked by my book club.

FTC full disclosure: I received neither money nor political power for writing this review.


Brian wrote his first YA novel when he was down and out in Mexico. He now lives in Missouri with his wonderful wife and daughter. He divides his time between writing and working as a school librarian. Brian still misses the preachy YA books of the eighties.