The webcomics blog about webcomics

Fleen Book Corner: The Midwinter Witch

Sometimes, I think that JRR Tolkien’s most enduring contribution was the idea of the trilogy¹. Maybe it’s just because it’s become a default structure, but there’s something innately satisfying about not just a story having a beginning, middle, and end, but having whole stories act as beginning, middle, and end of a larger tale. A good trilogy reveals patterns and meaning that a single book keeps hidden, or maybe fallow, waiting for the context of other books to let them blossom.

Thus, when reading The Midwinter Witch by Molly Ostertag (a copy of which I finally obtained this week, Diamond doing its absolute best to not supply my comic shop, where I pre-ordered it in June), I find myself regarding the story on its own, and as of a piece with its two predecessors, The Witch Boy and The Hidden Witch. Thoughts on the newest story and the larger narrative below, with the requisite warning that here be spoilers. If you don’t want to accidentally learn story specifics, the short version is that Ostertag brought the series to a satisfying and earned conclusion and the third book is easily the equal of the first two.

There’s a progression in the Witch Boy series, something we come to learn about Aster and his friends and family, even when the story doesn’t focus on him exclusively. The first book was about Aster’s coming to grips with his desire to be a witch, even though everybody knows witches are exclusively girls and boys are exclusively shapeshifters. He broke more than one family taboo, bringing nonmagical (but oh so awesome) Charlie into his family’s world, a sounding board free of the mores and culture he grew up in that told him what he could and couldn’t be. It’s fundamentally a book about learning to be yourself.

The second book introduced Ariel, with awakening magical powers and nobody to teach her, finding herself walking a dark path of imagined slights and too-real vengeance. Change is happening in Aster’s family, his cousin Sedge is breaking patterns in his own way, Charlie is becoming an accepted extension of the family, and together they’re able to pull Ariel back from her own worst impulses. It’s fundamentally a book about learning to accept love.

And now that Charlie and Ariel have become adjuncts to the Vanissens, the story shifts to the extended family and their midwinter festival. Cousins and cousins-of-cousins that haven’t had time to get used to the idea of role-defying witch boys have their say, Aster’s mom asks him to keep a low profile (mostly out of a desire to protect him, but I think a little out of concern about What Others Might Think), and the term we’ve used to describe Aster — Witch Boy — is spat at him as insult by a particularly jerky cousin. It’s curious that the extended clan doesn’t have a problem with Charlie’s presence but Aster being different? Whispers and more.

But Aster isn’t who he was two books back. Ariel, Charlie, and Sedge are fellow boundary-stretchers alongside him, and his sister Juniper — recognized last year as the best witch in her age cohort — has his back. So does his dad, for that matter, and Grandmother settled the question of Aster’s place in the family some time back and no distant cousin is ready to cross her. Mom’s almost got Aster talked out of being witchy in public but Sedge — who was so mean two books back — is the one that asks What about the other kids like you, though? You know there’s got to be other witch boys in our family. Maybe they’re better at hiding it than you. Or shifter girls, as Charlie points out, the two of them making the point that seeing somebody like himself when he was little would have meant the world to Aster².

And if Aster’s grown so has Ariel, learning about her powers, very slowly letting down the walls she’s had up for so long. But there’s a nagging sense of doubt, one that becomes tangible. Ariel’s the scion of a magical family that doesn’t play by the rules of the Vanissens and the other families. Not just the gender rules, the rules about don’t use magic to hurt people. Her long-lost aunt visits Ariel in a dream to whisper Your mother was my ally, we stood against all of them, but she got sick and weak and pushed me away. You could be my ally.

She needs allies, because it turns out Ariel’s birth family uses their powers to steal magic from others. Her aunt doesn’t say so, but mom’s distancing was probably a matter of self-preservation. You’ll end up hurting people she whispers, and They’ll turn on you, and Only I understand you. She’s telling Ariel simultaneously she needs to leave those that love her for their own good, but also that they secretly hate her and why shouldn’t they, since she’s a monster after all. She’s an abuser, seeking to isolate her victim, and the lies are sweet poison that almost work.

But Ariel’s not who she was one book back; she is able to fight her doubts and trust those that have shown they’ll risk anything to help her instead of those that promise magical domination. Soft-hearted, her aunt sneers, Disappointing. But I’ll take your magic all the same. Ariel chooses Aster, protecting him and liberating herself. This book is fundamentally about standing up to those that would tear you down³, learning that you can do no harm but also take no shit.

It takes time to find your place in the world. Aster’s gone from Mom and Dad don’t really get it, but … I don’t know, they haven’t kicked me out or anything to honestly confronting his mother about her actions (and Dad’s totally in his corner). The witches he competed against at the festival are hanging around in the spring, all witching it up with him. Some people grow, some stay stunted, but the forest of their lives gets taller and broader with each passing season. And that little pre-witch boy or pre-shifter girl is watching it all happen.

The Witch Boy trilogy is for everybody — every different kid, no matter how they’re different, every kid that will stand with them against the close minded (and not because they expect adulation), everybody that was one of those kids in the past — and I suggest you go get all three books for your own shelves immediately, and then decide which kids (of any age) need their own copies at the next appropriate holiday or birthday. You won’t just give them a great story, you’ll make them better people.

Spam of the day:

P.S. I am 28 yo and i am coming from Kiev, ukraine.


¹ If that grizzled old philologist hadn’t existed, the publishing industry would have had to invent him, maybe with a kid that’s less of an obsessive completist/posthumous editor.

² This conversation, it should be noted, takes place at a slumber party at Charlie’s place, as Ariel is doing Aster’s nails in purple polish. It’s subtle, but the color is present every time we see his fingernails for the rest of the book. Charlie’s dads have zero problem with boys and girls crashing out in front of the TV with pizza bagels and nail polish because they are awesome dudes with their heads screwed on right.

Although one of them remarks that Charlie sure seems to want everything to go perfectly, almost like she’s trying to impress someone. She blushes, but she doesn’t say which of her three guests she might be crushing on. And you know what? It doesn’t matter. Charlie rules.

³ Is it a coincidence that this book came out almost exactly at the same time that a self-proclaimed white guy ally in animation — Ostertag’s day job — got all pissy on the Grams for not being patted on the back constantly? Beware those that heartily declare I could be your ally, just do what I say.

RSS feed for comments on this post.