Half-Witch, John Schoffstall (Big Mouth Press 978-1-61-873140-1, $18.99, 322pp) July 2018.
There is something deeply satisfying about a traditional fantasy with plucky protagonists, nefarious villains, hungry goblins, tricky witches, and a dangerous and difficult quest. In John Schofstall’s Half-Witch, everything you expect to find is present, plus a lot of unlikely twists and turns that make this adventure a classic read. The novel’s most unusual plot device is the presence of God, who serves as an occasional sounding board to main character Lisbet. Remarkably, for all that God (and occasionally Jesus) chime in to offer opinions on Lisbet’s struggles, the plot is not terribly religious. God is simply an authority that people can briefly consult, via a communion wafer. He is in fact the top of the authority pyramid, the “Great Chain of Being” in Lisbet’s world, as she explains to her witch-friend Strix:
“At the top is God,” she said… “The angels answer to God. The Pope answers to God. The bishops and priests obey the Pope. Nobles obey the Pixie Queen. Commoners obey the nobles. Children obey adults. Horses and dogs obey people. Everyone has their proper station.”
Strix, who has a decidedly acerbic nature, is not impressed.
“Children obey adults or they get beaten,” Strix said with a shrug. “Commoners obey nobles or they’re hanged. The Great Chain of Being is obviously just an excuse for the strong to exploit the weak, dressed up in fancy language.”
It’s logic that Lisbet cannot refute and, in the end, will come to question with increasing fervor.
Lisbet and Strix end up together on their quest because of a problem and a witch. The problem is that Lisbet’s conman father has run afoul of the Margrave, the president-like leader of their alpine province. Forced to flee after her father is imprisoned, Lisbet seeks assistance from the witch who made (and thus controls) Strix. The two girls are thus thrust together in less than favorable conditions, but as they face down a bad man, cross a great mountain range, and enter the part of the world dominated by witches and goblins (and ruled by the terrifying Pope of Storms), they become friends. Lisbet nearly dies, Strix does die, a goblin bonds with them over books, a sewer full of defeated humans must be traversed, a moat full of crocodiles avoided, and the Pope of Storms outwitted, but everyone gets saved (even though they die) and the quest is successful!
(This is not a spoiler as quests are always successful in tales such as this.)
God gets into a bit of a sticky situation in heaven, however, and his image takes a hit. “It was discouraging to find, in her hour of utmost need,” Lisbet notes at one point, “that God’s advice sounded depressingly like that of any other grown-up.” In fact, much as Philip Pullman exposed the more hypocritical aspects of organized religion in the His Dark Materials series, Schoffstall plays with the idea of unquestioning subservience to religious power in Half-Witch. Lisbet finds disappointment sometimes with God (and Jesus, who disappears when the going gets tough), but she does not lose faith. God does not have all the answers, but neither does anyone else. The challenge is simply to not stop looking for answers.
As they continue their quest, Lisbet and Strix become the very definition of plucky, and it is hard not cheer them on. They are charming characters who overcome all sorts of fantastical obstacles and forge a powerful friendship. In the end, they just might be up to saving God and, really, why shouldn’t they? After everything else they have accomplished, putting things to rights in heaven seems like just the sort of job they are suited for and John Schoffstall is certainly up to the challenge as well.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the August 2018 issue of Locus.
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