Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Review - The Vengeance of the Witch-Finder by John Bellairs (with Brad Strickland)

Short review: While on vacation with his Uncle Jonathan, Lewis wakes a vengeful spirit that he tries to ignore until it becomes imperative that the two of them deal with it.

On trip in Europe
Woke up an evil spirit
That tried to kill me

Full review: When John Bellairs died, he left two half-finished books and outlines for two more. Brad Strickland completed all four books, and one of the results of those efforts is The Vengeance of the Witch-Finder. The story is part of the Lewis Barnaveldt series, and one which actually features Lewis (as opposed to being one the books that feature his friend Rose Rita as the protagonist).

One oddity of the series is that Lewis, teamed with his uncle Jonathan Barnaveldt, and Rose Rita, teamed with the Barnaveldt's neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman seem to alternate in solving the various mystical mysteries featured in the books, but don't seem to work all together very often - almost as if Bellairs and Strickland had decided they needed an all-boy team and an all-girl team to feature but that the two sexes should be kept apart whenever possible.

Lewis and his uncle Jonathan are traveling through Europe, interrupting their visits to tourist sites to visit Barnaveldt Manor, the home of their distant English cousins. While there, Lewis gets to poking around the manor, and with the help of the housekeeper's son, accidentally releases something that would have been better left undisturbed. Like many youthful protagonists, Lewis decides against telling any adults about the brewing trouble, and he and his uncle leave to continue their tour of Europe.

Weeks later, Lewis and Jonathan return to Barnaveldt Manor, and find that what Lewis released was the spirit of an evil witch-finder who was alive during the English Civil War, and who wants to put all the Barnaveldt's on trial for witchcraft. The witch-finder was, of course, a practitioner of magic himself who dabbled in dark magic, unlike kindly Jonathan (who is a wizard, but only practices good magic). Lewis outsmarts the evil spirit, and all ends well.

The story seems a bit thinner than the works that Bellairs wrote when he was alive. The mystery itself is fine, but there is less material focused in on developing Lewis, Jonathan, and the other characters than in previous works. That may be at least partially due to the constraints Strickland worked under to complete an unfinished work, but it makes the book seem somehow incomplete. There is a little thrown in about Lewis' travels helping him to transform from an overweight, bookish boy into a "normal" boy who is athletic and plays baseball, but it is really only given cursory attention. It also seems somewhat out of place - earlier books established Lewis as an overweight, unathletic boy, and Rose Rita as a baseball playing tomboy - making them both essentially misfits. Further, the previous books also established that this was perfectly okay, even if some people thought less of them for that. Having Lewis transform into a "normal" boy seems to undermine that message to some extent.

While not as good as some previous books in this series due to a lack of character development, the mystery is still good, and Lewis (despite some foolish choices here and there) is a sympathetic and enjoyable protagonist.

Previous book in the series: The Ghost in the Mirror
Subsequent book in the series: The Doom of the Haunted Opera

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  1. I would still be open to beginning the series.

    1. @fredamans: I love Bellairs' books. Every one of them is pretty much a great young adult book.