Arriman the Awful is simply sick and tired of being the darkest wizard around. He consults a fortune teller and is promised that a new wizard will come to take his place as master of black magic, but after nine hundred and ninety days, he is also sick and tired of waiting. He decides the only way to get out of all this evil wizardry is to produce an heir. Of course it would help if he had a wife first.
Aided by a tail-sporting secretary who has watched a few too many Miss Universe pageants (no really, he has!), Arriman organizes a contest to find the best candidate for producing an evil heir. The contest begins Halloween week!
Ibbotson does a fabulous job describing Arriman’s residence, Darkington Hall, and all of the horrors (none of which are actually all that horrible or scary) contained with. The band of eccentric witches can be a bit tedious, but I can’t help loving the old witch who kept turning herself into a coffee table and then forgetting how to turn herself back.
This is a book which should be okay for fourth grade and up, although perhaps some advanced third graders manage it, certainly second and third graders would be fine with this as a read aloud. Ibbotson does nice job throwing in explanations for ogres, familiars and a kraken so that children aren’t entirely reliant on their own prior knowledge of these subjects. Despite the premise of an evil wizard looking for an evil wife, the book only really has one scary scene, the rest of the death and violence are sort of cartoonish and not upsetting. I do also want to make note that although I really do enjoy her books, Eva Ibbotson is absolutely on my author beware list, meaning she writes for an incredibly wide variety of age levels. You cannot just grab another book by her once your child has read one and liked it. Her books range from easier chapter books for middle grades, to more complex chapter books for middle schoolers, to fairly chaste love stories for teens, to books where teenage girls have premartial relations with men in their thirties. She just doesn’t fit into a nice neat box.
Sort of a random complaint, but here it is: the witches are often referred to by the color of their magic, with black being the desirable type of magic and white being bad. It was a little weird to be reading about the blackest wizard or “what if we have a white baby” without it referring to race at all. Particularly weird is a declaration it “doesn’t matter what color our babies are.”
Sex, Nudity, Dating – Arriman is picky about the type of ghost he has in his house and does not want a headless nun catching him in his bath. The basic premise of the book is that Arriman needs to marry a witch in order to produce an heir. Mabel conjures up some topless mermaids. Nancy lays on her bed in her vest and knickers (which in the US just sounds eccentric, but in the UK is underwear). Arriman undresses for a bath. There is some sappiness, but the other characters complain about it as well.
Profanity – “Oh my gawd” (yes, it’s written with the aw) twice.
Death, Violence and Gore – The ghost that lives at Darkington Hall is rumored to have murdered seven of his wives, possibly by drowning, stabbing or strangulation, and now strikes his forehead (which makes a plashing sound). Lester the ogre was once a sword swallower. Mr. Leadbetter used to rob banks. A bat tells of his aunt bat who fell in with some vampire bats and now is good at sucking blood. Madame Olympia appears in a cape of puppy fur and a has a necklace of human teeth. She also had five husbands who went missing in rather suspicious ways. Another witch hopes Madame Olympia will drop dead. A worm is injured and its insides were spilling out. Terence suggests a trick that used to get witches burned at the stake or drawn and quartered. We learn that in the East some magic brings people up on a flying carpet and delivers them down on top of spikes. Lester says that from how Arriman is acting, anyone would think he would be having his head cut off, not getting married. Arriman owns a tapestry of a man being shot through with arrows while being burned at the stake. A witch requests a drowned sailor in order to do her trick. Arriman worried that there might be cannibalism in the contest. A mother kraken dies when an oil rig strikes her head. Someone falls into a bottomless hole. Some spells require ooky things like the gall bladders of murderers. Arriman ponders several ways he could kill himself if the elderly witch wins the contest. There is a cave at Darkington Hall where prisoners used to be tortured to death or left to starve. A witch uses a whip whose thongs were made from plaited human skins. Her trick is truly horrible conjuring plague ridden rats, who then turn to rat skeletons and then back into regular super large rats who then eat each other. It’s really the scariest bit in the book, and seems like it could cause nightmares. The matron at the orphanage is pretty nasty and threatens the children that she doesn’t know whether to beat them or send to Borstal (juvenile prison). Also that the orphanage, children are told bedtime stories about children having their thumbs cut off.
Drugs, Alcohol and Smoking – A gypsy fortune teller drinks gin straight from the bottle and smokes cigarettes (she is a very minor character). The Shouter twins (witches both) smoke cigarettes. Mother Bloodwort (also a witch) drinks shoe polish which is labeled not for human consumption. Someone gets an octopus drunk. An actor is needed for a trick, and one is ruled out because he’s a “boozer”. There is another reference to a drunken actor being thrown down the stairs.
Frightening or Intense Things – A familiar goes missing, and some children may be worried by this. Honestly though, the whole tone is pretty light with the exception of the rat horror listed above. And that is horrible. Really horrible. If you want to check it out yourself, it’s pages 156-160 in my copy, right at the end of Chapter 13 (how’s that for poetic).
Random Religious Note – Yes, I know that if you are so religious that you won’t let your children read books with witches in them, it probably doesn’t matter, but for those that care: I though it might bother some people that in order to do some witchcraft, one of the witches says the Lord’s Prayer backwards.