by Sarah Jean Horwitz
Algonquin Young Readers, 2019. 332 pages.
Review written November 7, 2019, from a library book
2019 Cybils Finalist Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction
2019 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #7 in Children’s Fiction
Clementine’s father is under a curse. Slowly, he is turning into a wooden puppet, and parts of him are being whittled away as he gets smaller and smaller. But he won’t tell Clementine what happened. Instead, he shuts himself in his study with books about witches, and Clementine is left to run the castle, and even to come up with a Dastardly Deed for the Council of Evil Overlords.
Clementine’s father is the Dark Lord Morcerous, and their family has been the evil lords of these mountains for generations. But as her father’s wards begin weakening, Clementine has to start dealing with the local hedgewitches and people of the village.
Clementine doesn’t know how to fix a fence to keep the fire-breathing chickens from harming the ordinary chickens. She needs help feeding the nightmares and harvesting the poison apples, but the animated scarecrows are slowing down as her father gets whittled away. So Clementine needs some help.
She finds a huntress to help with farm work, and then some village boys who want to learn to be knights. It’s all working toward an encounter with the Whittle Witch, but Clementine learns many things about herself along the way.
Here’s a scene when Clementine notices something is wrong:
Clementine stared at the scarecrow. Not once, in all the years she’d spent watching the animated scarecrows at work, had one ever stopped in the middle of a task. In fact, sometimes they were a little too enthusiastic in their work. They had to be given specific instructions, like exactly when to start and stop, or they were liable to turn the same pile of hay over and over again for days on end, or trim the grass in the castle courtyard until there was nothing left but dirt.
Like many things on the farm, the scarecrows were animated by her father’s magic – a complex combination of spells and wards and willpower that kept their estate secure, productive, and most importantly, operating according to the Dark Lord’s express rules and wishes. Nonhuman farmhands would never show up late, or demand vacation time or dental insurance, or even tire. The Dark Lord’s estate hadn’t employed any actual people – with the exception of their castle cook and Clementine’s ever-rotating cast of ill-fated governesses – for decades, at least since her father had inherited the title. Why bother with human workers when the alternative was so much simpler and efficient?
But Clementine had never seen Ethel the cook or any of her governesses simply stop like this, every limb frozen in place. this scarecrow wouldn’t have looked out of place in an actual cornfield – and what use would the Morcerouses have for it then?
Despite being about a Dark Lord, I loved the good-heartedness of this book. There’s a problem – Clementine has to keep things going as her father succumbs to a curse, and there are plot twists and revelations along the way. We thoroughly enjoy getting to know Clementine as we go through these things with her.
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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.
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