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The witch, the orphan, the cat and the Mandrake
on 23 February 2014
Let's pause and bow our heads for a moment. Last year, we lost one of the greatest fantasy authors, Diana Wynne-Jones.
Before she passed away, Jones wrote one last book containing the usual things you would expect: an irrepressible orphan, a witch, spells, a cat, and lots of magical forces. But sadly, "Earwig and the Witch" is not really up to Jones' usual brilliance -- it's a fun book, but it feels like an unfinished draft that ends abruptly, without dealing with all the plot threads.
Earwig (aka Erica Wigg) has spent her whole life in an orphanage, and has no desire to be adopted by anybody. But despite her best efforts, she IS adopted by a mysterious pair -- a witch named Bella Yaga (also a nickname for Bella Swan), and a mysterious horned man called the Mandrake. Bella Yaga only adopted Earwig so she would have unpaid labor.
Soon Earwig decides to make the best of her situation, and learn some of the many strange spells that Bella Yaga is working on. She also has an unexpected new ally: the witch's talking cat, Thomas. With his help, she might be able to master enough magic to make Bella Yaga regret ever treating her like a slave...
"Earwig and the Witch" has that distinct Diana Wynne Jones charm -- talking cats, magic books, suburban witches, overwhelming Britishness and a wicked sense of humor. It also has a bittersweet tang, since this is the last Diana Wynne Jones fantasy novel we'll get (unless they find some hidden manuscripts somewhere).
Earwig is a delightful heroine -- strong-willed, feisty and willing to bide her time so she can mess around with the annoying witch who dragged her away from her old home. It's hinted that there's more to Earwig than meets the eye, but it's never developed. Thomas is also a fun character, a sardonic cat who reluctantly helps Earwig with her spells, and the mysteriously sulfurous Mandrake.
Unfortunately... the book doesn't feel finished. It feels more like the first third of one of Jones' books -- there are a bunch of things that seem to be significant (Custard, the note from Earwig's mother) but are never picked up. At the end, you're left thinking, "That's it? It's OVER?"
"Earwig and the Witch" is a sad book -- not just sad because it was Jones' final novel, but because it feels like she never really finished it. But it has charm and magic as a coda to her career. Farewell, Ms. Jones.