Curse of the Night Witch: Emblem Island, Book 1

Book review by
Carrie R. Wheadon, Common Sense Media
Curse of the Night Witch: Emblem Island, Book 1 Book Poster Image
Promising fantasy world, but hasty storytelling.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

This story is inspired by Latin American myths the author's Colombian grandmother told her as a child.

Positive Messages

Strong messages about gratitude, teamwork, bravery, sacrifice, and not fearing failure. Folktales warn against greed, temptation, jealousy, and vanity.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Tor begins unhappy with his fated path to be a leader. His adventure to find the Night Witch makes him grateful for what he had, determined to sacrifice everything for friends and family. Bravery replaces his fear of failure, though he still isn't comfortable with his new fate at end of story.

Violence

Three 12-year-olds are attacked by trolls, a giant snake, a bone creature, and soldiers with arrows and swords. A curse eats at their veins, causes pain and gashes on the skin, threatens to kill them. A poisonous frog makes a boy pass out. Stories of people who turn into monsters after terrible deeds, including trying to drown their own children and killing many. A woman admits to eating her own children to stay alive.

Sex
Language
Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Curse of the Night Witch is the first book in the Emblem Island series by debut author Alex Aster. Aster was inspired by Latin American myths her Colombian grandmother told her as a child. The main character, 12-year-old Tor, and his two friends cross their dangerous island alone and are attacked by trolls, a giant snake, a bone creature, and soldiers with arrows and swords. A curse eats at the trio's veins, causes pain and gashes on the skin, and threatens to kill them. A woman admits to eating her own children to stay alive. Short folktales are interspersed with the main story warning against greed, temptation, jealousy, and vanity. These stories hold the most violence. People turn into monstrous creatures after terrible deeds, including murder and trying to drown their own children.

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What's the story?

In CURSE OF THE NIGHT WITCH, Tor is excited about the Eve celebrations on Emblem Island. He's 12 years old, which is finally old enough to make a wish during the festivities. He's wished for as long as he can remember to have a different emblem on his arm -- not the leadership mark he's had since birth, but one for breathing under water. Tor makes his wish and, low and behold, wakes up with no leadership mark. But there's something else on his arm: a blinking eye, the sign of a curse. His classmates Engle and Melda fetch him for school, spot the curse, and whisk Tor off to see a "know-all" instead: a hermit woman outside the village who can tell them what to do. The know-all has some very bad news for all of them: Tor needs to find the Night Witch on a dangerous, colorless part of the island, he has only a week to do it before the curse kills him, and he absolutely needs to make sure no one touches the cursed mark on his arm. Unfortunately, Engle and Melda already did, and now have cursed marks of their own.

Is it any good?

This magical island quest tale with Latin American flare has the makings for a good series start but suffers from rushed storytelling. Young first-time author Alex Aster is bursting with great ideas -- not a bad problem to have unless you try to cram them all into one quest and don't pace yourself. It's hard to believe how fast the story veers from one locale to the next -- from encounters with a troll in the mountains to a vain monarch in a castle to a snow beast in a frozen village to a giant snake in a jungle ... and there's a desert in there somewhere, and an abandoned town, and many more places on a single island. And somehow with all these terrains and adventures it takes them only a week to get to the other, shadowy cursed side of the island, all on foot minus a brief balloon ride over the mountains and a zip line through the forest. It doesn't seem plausible, and some fantastic opportunities for world building and for getting to know the characters get lost in this huge rush to the next monster and next location.

Yet the ending of Curse of the Night Witch bodes well for the series: The main character, Tor, has a huge task ahead of him and a whole island to save from evil. Plus, he may get shunned by his own people for who he's become. Let's hope Aster takes her time with the sequel to breathe real life into all her great ideas.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the Latin American influence in Curse of the Night Witch. The author took inspiration from stories her Colombian grandmother told her as a child. What stories are passed down in your family? Do they have lessons like the stories here?

  • Are the folktales you already know tamer or scarier than the ones you read in this book? Does a scarier story convey a message better than a tamer one?

  • What emblem would you like to have? If you didn't get the emblem you wanted at birth, would you risk everything to get a new one like Tor does? What do you think is next for Tor and his friends?

Book details

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For kids who love fantasy and Latinx stories

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