The Apprentice Witch by James Nicol

posted in: James Nicol | 2

Apprentice-Witch-300pxWith a good-heartedness and open-eyed optimism free of cynicism, echoing classic books from an earlier generation, James Nicol‘s début novel, The Apprentice Witch combines immense comfort-reading with a bewitchingly perfect dose of mystery, suspense and magic.

Despite failing to graduate as a fully fledged witch (much to the delight of mean classmates who tease her), the Kingdom’s need for protectors from dark magic is such that Arianwyn is nevertheless assigned a town to safeguard. Lull’s mayor is not best pleased at receiving an apparently second-rate witch, especially as her first attempts to deal with troublesome spirits result in unintended explosions and ever more frightening hints that all is not well in the neighbouring Great Wood, the dangerous and remote place to which (as legend would have it) ancient spirits retreated to escape the intrusion of the human world.

Doubtful of her own skills, and repeatedly troubled by a frightening apparition that she can’t make sense of, Arianwyn nevertheless commits to do her best to protect the townsfolk of Lull. She is kind and thoughtful, brave and imaginative, but the little progress she makes seems to be undermined when one of her peers who crowed most at her failure to graduate turns up; Gimma is the niece of Lull’s mayor and in his eyes she can do no wrong.

Gimma, however, has her own secrets, and Arianwyn is soon trying to weigh up the value of loyalty, discretion and friendship, at the same time as trying to understand who she really is, the strength of her powers and how she can use them for the best of the community she serves.

A careful weaving of gentle explorations of identity, how to find courage when times are bleak and how to trust others and oneself is shot through with delight, charm, and warmth. Packed with characters you want to meet and befriend (and one or two who are delightfully annoying), The Apprentice Witch is also hugely enjoyable for its setting – an imaginative landscape full of wonder, with just the right amount of threat on the horizon. In this regard it reminded me a little of the Narnia books. A wonderfully climactic ending leaves you feeling a huge sense of relief and satisfaction, as well as an eager hopefulness that we might be able to read further Arianywyn adventures down the line.

Gracefully written, dramatically paced and full of fingertip-fizzing sparkle, The Apprentice Witch is a wonderful encouragement to be brave, thoughtful and generous, and to never give up in the face of failure.

You can find out more about The Apprentice Witch in this video:

Pages from the fictional The Apprentice Witch’s Handbook are interspersed throughout The Apprentice Witch. The girls and I would have rather liked to create this imaginary book, complete (no doubt) with a heavy leather binding and intricately carved clasps, but finally we chose instead to create some charms as described here:

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Using two part transparent plastic baubles, the sort you can find in craft shops to create your own Christmas decorations, we set about creating our own charms, filled with dried herbs, pebbles, gems and other natural, magical material, with powerful glyphs written around the outside.

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We thought about what we might like charms to help us with or protect us from, and wrote the charm “recipes” in a mini book to keep safe.

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Our home is now fully protected against all sorts of evil spirits!

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Whilst we made our charms and wrote them out we listened to:

  • The Witch Of The Westmorland by Stan Rogers
  • The White Witch by Heg and The Wolf Chorus
  • Witch of the Wildwoods by Moonstruck
  • And we couldn’t resist an excuse to watch the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Fantasia (music by Paul Dukas):


  • Other activities which might work well alongside reading The Apprentice Witch include:

  • Making your own five pointed star badge which witches receive upon graduation. Airdrying clay, fabric or paper could be used with just a safety pin firmly attached. This sort of “membership” activity could work really well for a bookclub.
  • Learning to make hot cocoa. Perhaps a hallmark of a book with a quietly nostalgic feel, there’s lots of comfort found in The Apprentice Witch by drinking hot cocoa. Experiment and work out your own favourite recipe!
  • Cleaning up after a snotling explosion. This gloop is the most fantastic material to make and experience – definitely what I imagine a snotling to be made of!

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    Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of this book by the publisher, Chicken House Books.
    You can find James on Twitter @JamesENicol

    2 Responses

    1. Will definitely keep an eye out for this – my girls love witchy books! Arianwyn sounds a little like Mildred Hubble from The Worst Witch series that I loved so much when I was a child. Love the idea of charm recipes (even your pens look the part!) I think I should try these recipes out in my creative writing workshops and get the kids to go round and collect ingredients first. Thanks for the inspiration 🙂
      Rebecca Stonehill recently posted..Lena, Me and The Artist

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