Appropriately enough, I’m of mixed mind about John Schoffstall’s Half-Witch (2018), which is itself about a young girl who is part one thing, part another, moving through a world that is also a kind of collage, a strange admixture of building blocks.
For most of her 14 years, Lizbet Lenz has been forced to flee one home after another as her lovable con-artist father finds yet another way to turn the residents against them. But when he accidentally causes a rain of mice, he is imprisoned by the powerful Margrave before they have a chance to flee, leading Lizbet to undertake a seemingly impossible quest to travel with a young witch over the never-crossed Montagnes du Monde in search of a magical talisman desperately sought by the Margrave.
The world Schoffstall creates is wonderfully creative and whimsically eclectic, set in a Holy Roman Empire time period that takes much of medieval Christian theology literally. The Holy Trinity exists and communicates directly with people during Communion, though if they seem a bit distracted it’s because the war between Heaven and Hell, between the Trinity and its angels and Belial and his demons and devils, is touch and go. The world is also inhabited by goblins and witches. While there is some overlap, the world is mostly divided into a human side and a magical side, separated by those aforementioned Montagnes du Monde.
Witches, as Lizbet’s companion Strix, tells her, “make things. We break things apart. We make new things out of the pieces.” Strix herself was made by her master out of “dead leaves, cinnamon, twine, old teabags, wire and beans and shells … a book about fishing … tax rolls, broadsides, a pamphlet by a mad Englishman … “ Witches can also pull out, save, and transfer the interior qualities of people, such as lust, peace, empathy, and others. Meanwhile, the Trinity is surprisingly folksy, with God, for instance, telling Lizbet, “I’ve got devils coming out of my wazoo, and the Galilee Kid is running around turning the other cheek … whipping moneychangers … He turned one devil into an olive tree. One single devil … I raised such a klutz.”
There’s a Baum-like feel to many of Schoffstall’s creativity, though it’s all highly original in its details: drawbridges that rise and drop on “gray beating goose wings,” earth-witches who live belowground and hunger for corpses, a pair of feathery aides, a demon who was “an immense maggot … but with the face of a prosperous middle-aged man with puffy sideburns and an extravagant mustache,” another demon who feeds on words in books, and more.
The plot is picaresque, a series of encounters as Lizbet and Strix continue on their quest, meeting demons, the Pope of Storms, the Pixie Queen, and others. Honestly, this was the weakest part of Half-Witch for me, with few of the encounters being particularly compelling or even interesting (there were some exceptions), and that plus the episodic structure made the book drag and feel overlong.
More interesting by far than the plotting was the characterization, with both young girls compelling in their own right, but especially in their changing relationship with one another. Both are fierce-willed, though in different ways, and their companionship — forced on them at the start — begins with a lot of bickering and misunderstanding. But as they spend more time together, much of it in crisis mode, they each change (physically and emotionally) as they form a true friendship whose poignant sincerity is the moving, beating heart of this novel.
One caveat is that for a YA novel, there’s some relatively adult references in the story, such as discussion of witches’ “carnal relations,” a banished demon that “jammed its head into its own anus,” and others, as well as some darkly violent moments, and several intensely emotional scenes.
Half-Witch resolves the main quest and could easily end as it does, but it also leaves clear room for a sequel. If the issues of plotting and pacing could be improved on, I’d love to see where Schoffstall’s inventive mind takes us next.