There are certain things you should expect from a Den Patrick book: principled, if hot-headed, young men taking up arms against tyranny and oppression, brilliantly written sibling relationships, and a load of brilliant adventurous fun. Witchsign (Harper Voyager) has all of these in spades. The elevator pitch for this book is simple: what if Harry Potter went to evil Hogwarts, but it turned out they’d made a mistake and he was a Muggle?
Steiner and his sister Kjellrunn are teenagers living in a small town called Cinderfell, which is pretty much at the end of the world. Their father is a blacksmith, and their mother left many years before. They aren’t well off, and spend a lot of their time scraping to make ends meet. But their lives are disrupted when the mysterious masked Vigilants from the neighbouring and conquering Solmindre Empire arrive. Each year Vigilants come to test young people for Witchsign. Those with it are taken away on board ship and never heard of again. Steiner is found to have Witchsign, and is taken away. But it’s a mix up – he was protecting Kjellrunn, who it turns out has blossoming magical powers. Steiner is taken away, but not to his death as he feared – instead he finds that children with Witchsign are taken by the Vigilants to a mysterious island housing a a magical school. Kjellrunn and her father are left behind to cope with the fear and stigma of Witchsign having been discovered in their family.
One of the things I love about Den’s writing is that his protagonists aren’t your traditional royal heirs with magic powers/weapons/special destinies. Steiner is an ordinary young man who sees that something is wrong and decides to do something about it. He protects the weak and the vulnerable, stands up to bullies, and encourages people to work together to overcome obstacles. Although hot-headed and rash at times, it’s because he cares about the wrongs he sees in the world around him, and wants to do something about it. And his relationship with Kjellrunn is beautifully drawn. He is a fiercely protective older brother, who nonetheless will bicker with his sister over trivia.
Above all, Witchsign is a thrilling adventure story full of escapades, heroics, adventure, magic and dragons. It sets the scene perfectly for the second book in the series, as Steiner and his friends set out to overthrow the Solmindre Empire because of the suffering it has caused. But it’s written with contemporary sensibilities about corrupt governments, the abuse of power and bigotry.
And Kjellrunn’s reaction to being told to smile once too often by a foreign soldier? That had me punching the air in delight.
Goodreads rating: 4*