Sunday, 6 March 2016

FIRE GIRL by Matt Ralphs: reviewed by Penny Dolan

This magical fantasy - is set in an alternative 1661, supposedly “twelve years after the end of the Witch War”. Cromwell’s merciless Witch Finders have been destroying the witches of England, and the old friendship between ordinary people and the Healers seems to be over. Many witches have become no more than piles of ashes on pyres but some – both good and bad, male and female – remain in hiding or in disguise.

As the start of this story, Nicolas Murrell, the former “King’s Chief Minister of Magic and Witchcraft”, forces his way into the home of blind Mary Applegate, asking for information about Hecate Hooper. He restores the old witch’s sight but only to show her the foul demon Rawhead, a “skinless beast of flesh and sinew”, ready to consume Mary unless she answers . . . 

The outcome will not be good and makes it clear that the writer, Matt Ralphs, will be creating scary scenes and a variety of demons, ghouls and nasty characters for his readers.

Because of this, Fire Girl may not be the best night-time story for the younger pre-teen, but for those who don’t mind good dollops of menacing evil, foul slime and bad magic alongside the heroine’s quest and a creature of sarcastic cuteness, Fire Girl could well be just the right adventure.

The young heroine, red-haired Hazel Hooper, has lived a secluded life in the forest, her home protected by an enchanted hedge. Twelve-year-old Hazel fears she has no witch-like skills but when her mother is abducted, Hazel’s latent power is unleashed. She will be a Wielder, a witch able to generate streams of flame, but for now she is a fire-child, unskilled in managing the powers that surge through her body. Ralphs likens the strong emotion of rage to the dangers of fire: a power that Hazel must learn to control.

Hazel sets off into the world, deciding the best way to find her mother is by employing the services of Titus White, a drunken Witch-Finder and David Drake, his handsome Apprentice. She starts out on  a quest that will lead her to the new master of evil, Nicolas Tyrell himself but unfortunately, along the way, Hazel reveals her magical powers. David, horrified, cannot accept a witch as a friend: he now sees her as a deadly enemy who must be caught. There are now dangers on all sides . . .

The short, fast-paced chapters travel through classic fantasy settings:  deserted cottages, unfriendly towns, unholy fogs and forests, all leading to the malign turrets of Ravenspike castle and spooky church where Tyrell’s foul accomplices gather for the climax: Lilith the pale Frost Witch with her bloated spider, the wizened Petrov, Rawhead and worse. Hazel finds her mother, of course, but the story does not end quite as clearly as Hazel would have wanted . . .

I have emphasised, so far, the scarier aspects of the book, but must add that the mood is often lightened by one particular charming thread: Hazel’s relationship with Bramley, a dormouse who has become her loyal familiar. His grumpy mutterings and remarks coax Hazel through many difficulties and the warm affection between these two brave companions lets the reader know that all will be well, or at least partly all right. 

The final part of the story – or is it? - won’t arrive until Matt Ralph’s sequel, FIREWITCH, which his website suggests will be published in July 2016. 

Ps. An aside: Please be patient if I end with a bit of grumpy muttering - and do note that my complaint is not specifically about this book, which I enjoyed, or this particular publisher. It’s about my reaction to something as a reader.

As a big fan of story (and an occasional storyteller myself) I can’t help feeling disappointed when a book’s ending starts to lead towards a sequel, not to the full rounded conclusion I’m expecting for that particular plot, especially for young readers. 

I know, I know! This niggly response might just be me - and if so, I apologise - but I’ve come across the twist of the “sudden sequel” a couple of times recently and it’s never delighted me, even when the book itself has done. It's almost as if I hear enthusiastic "marketing" voices hiding under the pages

I do wish that, somehow, sometimes, publishers would just let one story “be” before another was so obviously started, rather than this practice of combining the two - or else find a way to indicate this expectation on the cover. 
Harumph! Grump over.

Penny Dolan



Pippa Goodhart said...

Ah, me too, Penny! I want a story to be a perfect whole, and not the build-up to something I haven't got. But you've introduced me to an interesting sounding new author here, so thank you.

Sue Purkiss said...

Sounds interesting - and that's a lovely cover.

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