Hammer of Witches

 
(i)

 

Fairy-tale creatures come to life in so-so swashbuckler.

What parents need to know

Educational value

Kids will learn about Columbus' first voyage to America, life in Spain during the 15th century, what first contact between Europeans and natives of the Carribbean may have been like, how the Taino people may have lived, the Spanish Inquisition, how Christians, Muslims, and Jews lived together in Spain at the time, folklore from all three cutltures. There's a very helpful Author's Note at the end explaining a lot about the historical accuracy of the book and the reasons behind some of the liberties taken by the author in this work of fiction.

Positive messages

Baltasar feels strongly that if people would just talk to each other, a lot of heartache and bloodshed could be avoided. And even though he could live in any fantasy realm he can imagine, he believes it's better to live in the real world with all its problems than to be stuck in one unchanging dream. Along his journey he learns that sometimes you have to go against your own inclinations to do what's necessary. He also learns that the truth about something isn't as important as how it's interpreted: What really happened doesn't matter as much as how people respond to what they think happened.

Positive role models

Baltasar at 14 is a quick-thinking boy who's able to turn a bully away by telling a funny story. Although he starts out entirely too self absorbed to want to save the world, he eventually learns to care for everyone and everything in it. He's assisted by a half-genie female who behaves like an impulsive younger sibling but who also demonstrates loyalty and helps him see the other side of things. He also befriends Catalina, originally disguised as a cabin boy, who models loyalty, friendship, and bravery; is unafraid to act; sets boundaries; and demands and commands respect.

Violence

The story is heavily punctuated with fantasy violence that draws a fair amount of blood. Zombie-like creatures come up from the earth, and desiccated corpses litter the ground after a battle. Some of the imagery is bloody and gory, but all fantasy based. The strongest example is when Baltasar fantasizes about wanting to kill his Inquisitor; he wants to "crack open his stupid face and watch the blood spill from his blubber."

Sex

Baltasar kisses Catalina once and he's not wearing a shirt. Nudity is mentioned but no body parts are described. Adults and 14-year-old Baltasar make jokes with sexual innuendo, including a joking reference to virgin sacrifices and orgies. Women are sometimes depicted as sexual objects, and an instance of rape is implied without any detail or even the word "rape." Baltasar tells a story of a girl called "Dirty Mary" who's debauched, and the men imply they'd like to sleep with her. The queen of a Taino tribe is mentioned as wearing only a skirt and described as having a voluptious body. The Author's Note at the end assumes we knew that history debates whether one of the characters had syphilis and talks about whether that might be true.

Language

People say "hell" and "damn" about a dozen times. There's one instance of "ass" and one of "whore." Early on there are several name-calling instances toward Jews ("Christ-killer," "dirty Jew") probably accurate to the time and part of the hero's identity quest.

Consumerism
Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Salty sea dogs smell of alcohol and sometimes seem to be drunk. Fourteen-year-old Baltasar wishes once he had wine to help him forget, and he tells us that he drank cheap wine with friends in the past. A Taino village leader chews "cohiba" leaves, presumably tobacco but it's never called by that name.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that Hammer of Witches isn't about witches at all. Fourteen-year-old Baltasar conjures and battles magical creatures to save the world. The story is heavily punctuated with fantasy violence that draws a fair amount of blood. Zombie-like creatures come up from the earth, and desiccated corpses litter the ground after a battle. Some of the imagery is bloody and gory. There are at least three strong female characters, but women are several times depicted as sexual objects. Many of the conjured creatures are epically destructive; some are helpful, and some are zombie-scary. There's some mild salty-sailor swearing ("hell," "damn") and one instance each of "ass" and "whore," and some anti-Semitic epithets directed at the hero.

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What's the story?

In 1492, 14-year-old Baltasar finds himself hired as a translator for the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. He's in pursuit of the father he never knew, hoping to stop the foretold destruction of the world. His father in turn will try to stop him by any magical means he can. But Baltasar has picked up a little magic along the way himself, and the battle between the two may bring an early end to the famous voyage. Eventually stranded on an island, Baltasar befriends the native population, confronts his father, and learns that the real world he inhabits is worth living in, thanks to the love and support of friends and family.

Is it any good?

QUALITY
 

Kids will no doubt be enchanted with the idea of conjuring fairy-tale creatures that make all your problems disappear. The hero of HAMMER OF THE WITCHES Is easy to relate to:  He's been bullied, he wishes his life could just be easy, and he's really, really mad at his father. The action is exciting, the creatures fantastic, and Columbus' famous first voyage west makes for an adventuresome backdrop.

All this may prevent kids from noticing the stilted dialog, the too-regular pacing of exposition and action, the convenient plot devices that make things happen just when they need to, and the shallow extent to which the past is evoked. But it may also prevent them from getting truly swept up in a world that should have so much more to offer.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about the historical accuracy of Hammer of the Witches. Do the historical characters seem like real people?

  • Is it OK to make things up about historical figures and timelines, in order to make a more interesting book?

  • If you could bring anyone or anything from a story to life, would you?  Who or what would you conjure, and why?

Book details

Author:Shana Mlawski
Genre:Fantasy
Topics:Magic and fantasy, Adventures, Fairy tales, Friendship, Great boy role models, Great girl role models, History, Misfits and underdogs, Monsters, ghosts, and vampires
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:Lee & Low Books
Publication date:April 9, 2013
Number of pages:400
Publisher's recommended age(s):12 - 14
Available on:Audiobook (unabridged), Hardback, Kindle, Nook

This review of Hammer of Witches was written by

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