Beswitched. By Kate Saunders. Delacorte Press. $16.99.
The Witch’s Revenge. By D.A. Nelson. Delacorte Press. $16.99.
Magic is all well and good, but it cannot carry a story all by itself. There have to be characters doing the magic, or having it done to them, and for a book to be effective, readers have to care about those characters. That is the issue with Beswitched: it is hard to care very much about Kate Saunders’ central character, 12-year-old Flora Fox. Flora is a spoiled 21st-century preteen who is selfishly upset about being sent to boarding school so her parents can go to Italy and take care of her ill grandmother, bringing her to their home in England. Then, instead of going to Penrice Hall, Flora finds herself magically relocated to a school called St. Winifred’s and to the year 1935. Far from marveling at what has happened, Flora is mainly worried about losing access to computers, cell phones and her favorite hair-care products – she is really rather whiny and superficial. Flora has to adjust to clothing and customs with which she is completely unfamiliar, and she does get used to things after a while; she also has to handle homesickness and some of the mean girls at school – issues for every generation. Eventually Flora settles in with a group of friends who start to experiment with the same sort of magic that brought Flora to St. Winifred’s in the first place. So…will Flora find her way back to her own time? Will she mature, and learn more about herself, through her magical time travel? Why was she brought to the past in the first place? These are really very ordinary questions for a book of self-discovery, and Flora is not a sufficiently interesting or admirable character to hold the book together: she does progress and grow somewhat, but she remains an immature complainer for too long, making it hard to care as much about her as Saunders wishes. The settings of Beswitched, which is intended for ages 10-13, are well pictured; Flora’s roommates (Pogo, Dulcie and Pete) are interestingly portrayed, tending to overshadow Flora herself; and the ending has a nice twist and a certain amount of poignancy. But Beswitched is not as involving as it could have been with a more admirable central character, or simply one who seemed to start with greater potential for depth and develop into a person more deserving of empathy and admiration.
The witchery is of a different sort in The Witch’s Revenge, a sequel to DarkIsle that was originally published as DarkIsle: Resurrection and is aimed at readers ages 8-10. The book will make little sense to anyone who has not read its predecessor, which was D.A. (Dawn Ann) Nelson’s first novel. The first book introduced 10-year-old Morag, whose cruel foster parents locked her in the house’s cellar. There, she heard voices and, following them, met a talking rat named Aldiss and a talking dodo bird called Bertie. She went with them on a journey to their kingdom, where the evil Devlish (certainly evil with that name!) was bent on conquering the world. Together with the pygmy dragon Shona and other helpers, Morag and her newfound friends had to steal the Eye of Lornish and defeat the warlock. The basic plot of DarkIsle was thoroughly unsurprising, although the way Nelson leavened it with humor was attractive. The Witch’s Revenge is also unsurprising and, unfortunately, less amusing. Essentially, having once saved the magical kingdom of Marnach Mor, Morag and her friends need to save it again: Devlish may be gone, but his daughter, Mephista (another obviously evil name), is very much alive, and bent on getting even with Morag and her companions. Mephista is given to typical evil-witch tirades: “‘When we captured [wizard and magical-kingdom leader Montgomery], the town began to fall apart. One seems not to be able to survive without the other. How delicious is that? I get to destroy not only you, but that place as well, and all the Goody Two-shoes who live there!’” Yes, thank you, we know, we know. Mephista has been stealing magical objects, Morag is having frightening dreams, and matters have generally been deteriorating in ways that are extremely easy to anticipate. Rat, dodo, dragon and girl must somehow battle back from an apparently hopeless situation to defeat Mephista, despite the added strength the witch has gained from stolen magic. And of course the good characters succeed – and, also of course, Morag learns of her true lineage, which is as royal as can be expected; and she is even more-or-less reunited with her parents, whom she is determined to rescue in the next book of this series. Many fans of DarkIsle will enjoy this further-adventures tale even though so much of it is predictable, but its fairly ordinary good-vs.-evil plot and standard quest elements prevent it from being much more than a reasonably well-written genre entry.