I don’t see “Witchfinder” by Ruth Warburton becoming the next YA blockbuster, but I enjoyed the book for the differences that will potentially make it slightly less popular on the mass market. For one thing, it’s set in London in 1880, giving it an old-fashioned vibe. Secondly, it’s a tad more grim than many of the YA books — even the dystopians — that I’ve read.
The book’s descriptor suggests it would appeal to fans of Cassandra Clare’s “Infernal Devices” series, and I suppose that’s true at some level. It’s the same time period, and it involves an element of fantasy, but that’s where the similarities stop.
Luke is a boy who’s grown up with the burning desire for revenge on the black witch that killed his parents before his eyes. To join a secret brotherhood of men devoted to hunting witches he must pass their tests, the last of which is to pick out a name at random, then hunt down and kill that witch within a month — or face death himself.
Luke, who has thus far worked as a blacksmith’s apprentice, chooses the name of Rosa Greenwood, a 16-year-old witch living in fading grandeur on the west side of town. Luke goes undercover as a stableboy to get close to the family, where it becomes apparent that Rosa is the last bargaining chip in her family’s effort to avoid bankruptcy. She’s about to be married off to a cruel and powerful witch, but Luke intends that she’ll never see her wedding day.
Outside of the fact that the book contains witchcraft themes, it’s almost more of a domestic drama that an adventurous fantasy. The story focuses on Rosa’s difficult position in the family and her ugly relationship with her mother and brother. She misses her father and longs for the way things used to be. Meanwhile, Luke is stressed by the responsibility he’s accepted and working not to give himself away as he pursues options that will bring him close enough to Rosa to kill — if he can make himself do it at all.
The more time they spend together, the more Luke senses the goodness in Rosa and the more he falls for her. In the end, he must decide whether he can kill the girl he’s falling in love with, and Rosa must decide if she can marry a man she detests.