In her debut novel, “The Witch Hunter” ($18, Little, Brown), Virginia Boecker takes us to an alternate version of 16th Century England where magic is very real and practicing it can be hazardous to your health.
Elizabeth Grey is coming of age in a violent occupation. She’s been trained since she was a child for one purpose – to bring witches to justice – and she’s been very good at it. Until recently, that is, when other issues have been occupying her mind.
The tables turn on Elizabeth when she is caught with some forbidden herbs and accused of witchcraft herself. She’s imprisoned and scheduled for execution, but Nicholas Perevil, the country’s most notorious and most wanted wizard, rescues her. He offers her life in return for her help in breaking a curse that’s been placed on him.
She begins her journey as a reluctant savior for a man she’s been taught to hate, but the path she travels will turn the world that she’s known for most of her life upside down.
To be honest, I’m a little torn at the finish of this book. On the one hand, I have to admit that the story was kind of fun. On the other, I think it could have been so much more.
The setup is there for a book that really makes Elizabeth examine herself and her beliefs and ask some hard questions. There’s great promise for some true development and impact, a la Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series. Instead, Elizabeth seems to breeze through the story, swaying whichever way the wind blows.
I never truly connected with Boecker’s heroine. She’s often annoying. I can forgive some of that because weren’t we all as teenagers? But late in the novel, faced with a horrifying revelation about her life and the cause that she’s sent good people to be tortured and burned at the stake for, she seems less affected by the weight of her actions than what the boy might think of her. It makes for a pretty shallow heroine, and in truth, I think some of the secondary characters might actually have better stories to tell.
“The Witch Hunter” is a book that’s crying out for a little bit of darkness and grit, but never gets it. Instead, it remains fairly light-hearted, particularly for a story that’s driven by a setting of persecution and cruelty. In the end, it’s a fun, quick read, but without much emotional connection or impact.