Amy Raphael (text) & August Ro (illustrator), The Forest of Moon and Sword, Hachette Children’s Books, 12 January 2021, 288 pp., RRP $15.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781510108356
Art has to watch as her mother and the women hiding with them are taken up by the witch hunters, betrayed by the people of their own village for a few coins and set to be hanged or carried off to an English prison and a probable death. As the Scottish village grows more hostile to the daughter of a known witch, Art bundles up her things and her mother’s herbal recipe book, disguises herself as a boy, and sets off through the wilds of Scotland to try and find her mother again.
Art is brave and resourceful, taking to heart the words her mother left for her: to be open to the guides along her way, to be on her guard but not afraid to take risks, and to let love give her courage. She does indeed find helpers and guides and even friends along the perilous journey to England and learns much before she wins through.
The pacing sometimes felt a little uneven, and there were times when it felt that Art’s story was sacrificed in favour of didactic exposition of historical details about the witch hunts in 17th century Scotland, but the first-person present tense narrative adds to the immediacy. There is a certain chilling tension at times that does justice to the story of the women arrested and killed by the witchfinders. Raphael also delves into the conditions that push some of the villagers and people that Art encounters into handing supposed witches over for execution.
There is plenty of death in this book. Disease claimed Art’s father and brother some time before the book begins, and Art’s black cat was destroyed by the village as a witch’s familiar. It is made very evident the terrible fate of the women arrested alongside Art’s mother. While it’s clear what happens, the details are mostly offstage, and the shadows of the story are offset by the strength of friendship and trust that Art finds along the way.
Herbalism and stone lore play an interesting role throughout the story, and there are hints of fairy tale elements alongside the grim history. Art rescues her mother’s treasured herbal recipe book with her, and what she has learned from her mother helps her along the way. There are also moments of guidance that Art encounters that reminded me of the animal and human guides that the fairy tale hero often meets on their way.
August Ro’s illustrations throughout the book add an atmospheric dimension to the story, and between the material and presentation of the book I would suggest The Forest of Moon and Sword for readers aged 11 to 13 who might be interested in the blend of adventure and witch trial history.
Reviewed by Emily Clarke