Hammer of Witches

By Shana Mlawski
Tu Books/Lee & Low • 2013 • 391 pages
Hardcover ($18.95)
ISBN: 978-1-60060-987-9
Ages 12 and up

The title of Mlawski’s debut novel is the English translation of the Latin Malleus Maleficarum: the name of a treatise on the prosecution of witches, written during the early Renaissance. In Mlawski’s novel, it is the name of a body of quasi-Inquisitorial men seeking out witches in 15th century Spain. Most prominent of the “witches” in this story is its narrator, a converted Jew being raised as an orphan by an aunt and uncle.

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At the beginning of the novel, 14-year-old Baltasar Infante is completely unaware of his powers. The setting is Columbus’s first voyage of discovery in 1492, but the real subject of the narrative is Baltasar’s stumbling efforts to discover who he really is, and to find the legendarily mighty Moorish warrior Amir al-Katib, who turns out to be the boy’s father.

Despite her avowed purpose of writing an entertaining fantasy, in which Storytellers like Baltasar can think creatures such as golems and leviathans into existence by focusing on stories about them, Mlawski nevertheless treats the historical aspects of her work seriously and includes references to the enslavement of Native Americans and the rape of native women by Spanish sailors. Baltasar’s loyal “sidekick” is a half-genie named Jinniyah who once belonged to Amir, and he learns to trust and appreciate another Storyteller, Catalina de Terreros during that fateful voyage.

The book climaxes with a bloody (off-stage) battle between Spaniard and Taíno, and Baltasar’s wise and big-hearted usage of his newfound powers. Enough plot threads are left hanging for the possibility of a sequel. A page-turning winner for fans of fantasy and adventure, and perhaps even devotees of historical fiction.

Reviewed by Cooper Renner, Retired Librarian, El Paso Independent School District