The Witch's Curse, by Keith McGowan (Henry Holt, 2013), takes up right where The Witch's Guide to Cooking With Children left off, with Sol and his little sister Connie escaping from the city where they were almost eaten by the witch who lived next door. But what Sol had hoped would be a simple bus ride through the forested mountains to their aunt's house turns into a nightmare when the two children find them selves lost in the cursed forest of yet another evil witch. A witch who turns children into animals, and then sends out her fearsome hunter to slay them.
If they can make it through the forest, they'll be safe, but the power of the witch is strong, and it is all very touch and go indeed. The witch has had, after all, years of experience entrapping children...and the children are still new at the business of escaping. And since I don't want to spoil particulars of the plot, that's all I shall say.
It's a more straightforward adventure than the first book, which was more playful in its juxtaposition of the witch's culinary musings with the danger the children were in of becoming part of her meal plan. Here we also have glimpses into the point of view of both the witch and her huntsman, but it's a more familiar story of lost children in danger in an evil forest....Though it takes a while for Sol and Connie to realize the extent of the danger they are in, because the reader is privy to the bigger story, what might otherwise have been a slowish start is instead almost immediately tense, and gets more so. And as was the case in the first book, the relationship between the siblings, sometimes fraught with tension of its own, adds a human element to the supernatural dangers.
Here's what I especially liked--the fact that the hunter himself is under a curse, and is therefore not clearly evil. I like my antagonists nuanced, and I hope we see more of him in the next book. That being said, this particular witch is not nuanced at all--at least the witch in the first book was killing children for a reason, not just as part of a sadistic game--but an all out wicked witch is perfectly acceptable, I think, in a fairy tale.
The Witch's Guide was a reimagining of Hansel and Gretel, and The Witch's Curse is a retelling of the more obscure Brother and Sister. There's no need to rush out and read the original story first, but having just done so myself after the fact, I appreciate the way it is twisted here lots! Sol and Connie are not the two original children, but rather follow in their footsteps, walking unwittingly into a nightmare for which they are poorly prepared (for instance, Sol's homemade computer/gps/etc. device, which should have been able to save the day, begs to be recharged at a crucial juncture!).
Highly recommended for intelligent readers who like a nice, dangerous adventure with twists and turns; though not, perhaps, a series for the child who's already frightened of what's out there in the dark woods...
The Witch's Curse is one of many fine books nominated for this year's Cybils Awards in Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction. Anyone can nominate books they love, but nominations close tomorrow night, so time is short....
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher