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“There are many ways to be strong that don’t require a sword,” Melda. –Curse of the Night Witch
Curse of the Night Witch
Emblem Island #1
by Alex Aster
AR Test, Strong Female Character, Teaches About Culture
Everyone on Emblem Island has a symbol that decides their fate, but Tor Luna seems like the only person who hates the one he’s been given. While other people can speak with animals, have beautiful singing voices, or culinary talent, Tor’s emblem is for leadership. He expects to live an uneventful life and take over his mother’s position as town chief. On the New Years’ holiday, Eve, the town gathers to send their yearly wishes to the wish god. Tor decides that this Eve he’ll wish for a new emblem. However, rejecting one’s emblem is a sure-fire way to get cursed, which is exactly what happens when Tor wakes up the next day with a curse mark where his leadership emblem once was.
Tor teams up with his friends, Melda and Engle, to find the legendary Night Witch, a fearsome woman who is said to have hundreds of emblems that she gained from killing their original owners. To find her, the group uses The Book of Cuentos, a storybook that includes legends about Emblem Island’s history that turn out to be more than just stories. Eventually, they reach the Night Witch – but things aren’t as clear-cut as they have been written in the storybook.
The Night Witch used The Book of Cuentos to frame herself as a villain in order to prevent her from getting her power stolen. She warns Tor that a greater darkness, one that is all evil, is rising and that she has picked Tor as her successor. Tor is unwilling to inherit her abilities, but the Night Witch passes on her power anyway. She picked Tor because the Night Witch believes he won’t abuse her skills. She says: “the best leaders are the ones who don’t want to lead.” The book ends with Tor shouldering the heavy burden of the Night Witch’s abilities with his friends and family at his side to defend Emblem Island from the coming darkness.
Curse of the Night Witch is steeped in Latin American folklore amplified by the author’s rich imagination. The book is heavy on worldbuilding that is relevant to the plot and is an immersive part of the story’s adventure. The stories from The Book of Cuentos can be unsettling, but they help craft a world where darkness lingers under a colorful exterior. In addition to being a detailed story, Curse of the Night Witch is a coming-of-age story as Tor and his friends undertake a dangerous journey. When Tor thinks the Night Witch is going to kill him, Tor wishes he would’ve been more grateful for what he had. However, he realizes that his journey has taught him to appreciate what he’s gained: Melda and Engle, “two friends he would trust his life with” as well as a deeper respect for his former emblem.
Tor is a thoughtful and determined main character who will quickly earn the sympathy and respect of readers. His drive to improve himself while still protecting innocent people shows his emotional complexity. The story emphasizes the power of friendship through Melda, Engle, and Tor, who are always ready to support one another and see their journey through until the end, no matter what happens. The plot twists and compelling lore make this an interesting story, however, there is gore and violence that some readers may find disturbing. Readers who want to read another tale that combines a rich cultural world with three friends who will protect each other until the end will enjoy Maya and the Rising Dark by Rena Barron.
- The Night Witch has an emblem that allows her to kill people by touching them. She kills her father and other innocent people. The Night Witch “had a gift never seen before. The power to kill with a single touch. And kill she did. One day, the girl emerged from her home, covered in blood, her father’s emblem on her skin. . . [The Night Witch] traveled across the island, leaving only death in her wake, emblems appearing on her arms after each kill, the ones she had stolen from children in their beds and from the poor souls who found themselves alone on a dark night.”
- A troll attacks Tor for trespassing in its territory. “A troll reached forward, and Tor screamed as its claw ran down the length of his arm.” The troll also bites him. Tor “screamed. It was like a giant needle had skewered his toes. Sparks of pain ignited in his toes and his entire foot went numb.” This feeling comes from a toxin that dissolves after a few hours, so Tor is not injured.
- A pelilarga attacked Melda. “[Melda] screamed as the pelilarga reached up and clawed her ankle, leaving five long, bloody scratches. . . The pelilarga hissed, and Melda winced, like it had scratched her again.” Melda is scratched up, but nothing worse. The attack ends when Melda, Tor, and Engle are able to distract the pelilarga with fireworks so they can escape.
- A giantess cuts Tor’s ear with an arrow for trespassing on her tribe’s land. “Tor winced and reached for his ear. His fingers came back covered in blood. The tiniest part of his ear, at the very tip, had been cut away.” Other than the cut, which later heals, Tor is not injured.
- The Book of Cuentos describes a mother who tried to kill herself and her children. The children escape, but the woman dies and becomes a monster called “The Woman.” The Woman “walked into the water, holding [her children’s] hands, intending to drown them and herself. But, before they were submerged, her children escaped. . . The Woman roams the island in search of children to take for her own.”
- A kidnapper hurts Tor for freeing his prisoners. “The man charged at Tor, managing to grab his arm so tightly Tor was actually afraid the bone might snap in half. . . Tor struggled until the man elbowed him right in the ribs. [Tor] bent over, gasping, the air sucked right out of him.” Engle saves Tor by hitting the kidnapper with The Book of Cuentos. “The kidnapper made a grunting noise, blinked, and fell to the ground. Engle stood there, The Book of Cuentos still held high above his head.”
- Emblem thieves are people born without emblems that kill others to steal their emblems. Killing someone allows the murderer to take the emblem of the victim. A group of prisoners caught by the emblem thieves are freed by Melda, Tor, and Engle. The prisoners fight back against their captors. “A woman cried out and leapt forward, taking down a guard in a single motion. . . A teenage girl disappeared right before [Tor’s] eyes, then reappeared after having struck a thief in the head with a bucket. An old man with a telekinesis emblem threw a chair at another.” The battle lasts a few paragraphs and ends when someone with a snowflake emblem freezes the remaining guards.
- An old woman in an abandoned town admits she resorted to eating her children to survive.
- Engle’s curse mark hurts him when he steps into the Night Witch’s territory. Engle “doubled over, crying out in pain and gripping his arm. . . the skin on Engle’s arm ripped open like the slow tearing of a seam. In a few horrifying moments, blood spilled over the cape Melda had made, and a clear message appeared, carved deep into his skin.”
- The same skin-tearing happens to Melda as the group gets closer to the Night Witch. “Then it was Melda’s turn to scream out. She clutched her arm, and loudly ground her back teeth together.” Lastly, it happens to Tor. “[Tor’s] palm suddenly split open. He gasped in pain, blood puddling at his feet.”
- Creatures take Engle into the water. After Melda rescues Engle, he’s very close to dying. “Engle’s eyes remained closed, and large gashes had been sliced through his clothes. He was bleeding, everywhere. But he was still breathing.” He lives.
- When Tor confronts the Night Witch, she admits that she didn’t kill her father; he was killed by other men. “The men who came [to the Night Witch’s home] were emblem thieves. There to take my father’s alleged two powers. By killing him. Once they realized one of his marks was false, they came back. And found me. But I was ready this time. I killed each one where they stood. My father’s emblem became mine. . . I roamed the island, searching for thieves just like the ones that had killed my father. I killed them before they could end anyone else. And so, my markings grew.”
- Tor fights the Night Witch. The witch “raised her hand, and the ground beneath Tor’s feet began to shake. It broke open, and dozens of shards of rock like teeth trapped his legs, then torso. The sharp stone tips pierced his clothes, crimson stains blooming through the fabric in blotches.” The battle lasts two pages and ends with the Night Witch transferring her power to Tor.
- Tor wakes in the middle of the night as his first new emblem appears. “He awoke screaming at the top of his lungs, feeling like someone was carving at his arm with a butcher knife, then scrubbing it with sea salt.” Tor learns that the process of getting a new emblem is painful.
Drugs and Alcohol
- Troll bites contain a toxin that induces drowsiness. Engle says, “Troll bites are nothing but annoying. Their teeth release just a bit of a chemical that promotes drowsiness, making it hard for their victims to escape.”
- Melda calls the Plains, a city on the island, “stupid.”
- The Book of Cuentos is an important book of legends that tells the history of Emblem Island, as well as detailing information about the island’s creatures and curses. It is kept by the community’s leader, Tor’s mother, until she passes it on to him. Some of the stories from The Book of Cuentos appear at the end of chapters. They are often dark tales of murder, punishment, and otherworldly beings.
- The story takes place on Emblem Island, a place where everyone has two distinct features: an emblem and a lifeline. An emblem is a symbol representing a magical skill somewhere on the body. A lifeline is a line, usually around the hands, that shows high and low points representing hardships and victories. It also shows when the person’s life will end.
- People with two or more emblems are known as wicked or a witch. “Witch was a foul name for a person who had been born with multiple emblems.” The people of Emblem Island believe that people with multiple emblems have too much power which drives them to evil deeds. The Night Witch is the most infamous of these witches, as she has hundreds of emblems.
- Tor and Melda have leadership emblems, which help them inspire people. Engle has a sightseer emblem, which allows him to see long distances. There are emblems for just about everything, including cooking, talking to animals, and water breathing.
- The world is full of magic creatures and objects. Familiar objects, like peaches, grow purple, and some animals have gigantism; a starfish is the “size of a rug.”
- Some magical creatures include gnomes, mermaids, trolls, giants, and fairies, among others.
- A “barbed malkin” is a cat-like creature with spike-like fur along its back.
- The mention of curses or cursed objects is very common. Stories like this are present in nearly every chapter. “Tor knew that touching the Bone Boat’s treasure was strictly forbidden. Doing so would unleash a fury-storm of repercussions: a hundred years of curses, teeth falling from the sky, the sea turning gray, blah blah blah, the same old tales Tor liked to roll his eyes at.” These legends often turn out to be true.
- Due to his Eve wish, Tor is cursed. It manifests in the form of an eye on his arm that blinks. Engle touches Tor, and the curse spreads to Engle in the form of a mouth that can speak.
- A myth in The Book of Cuentos tells of the creation of a hydroclops, a snake with a head on either end.
- Melda has a necklace that contains a “drop of color.” “Drops of color were extremely rare – they could only be extracted from special creatures. The liquid from Melda’s necklace could turn anything in the world that shade of blue.” Colors on Emblem Island are very important and can be stolen or changed with powerful magic.
- Captivates, siren-like mermaids, capture Tor, but his friends help him break the spell.
- Pelilargas, fantastical women with long hair, have the ability to steal souls, which makes their hair grow longer and stronger.
- Goblins are greedy creatures who have the ability to suck color from objects. In exchange for passage on a boat, a goblin takes the color from Melda’s eyes.
- A vanor is a creature able to take on the appearance of other people and craft illusions. Tor encounters one. “The [vanor] had no face, only a flesh covered canvas where a face should have been. But he wanted one. All vanors did. They lived to steal faces to add to their collections.”
- The residents of Emblem Island believe in karma. Melda says, “I’m only helping you [Tor] because I don’t want any bad karma affecting my Eve wish.”
- Souls exist. Some creatures, such as pelilargas, have the ability to steal them.