Book review: ‘The Whitby Witches’ by Robin Jarvis (YA)

(no spoilers)

The Whitby Witches is a book about courage, history and magic. Two orphans are suddenly re-routed to Whitby to stay with Miss Boston – a spritely 90-something year old who walks up the famous 199 steps every day to keep her mind and body active. She needs this sharpness in spades as her friends start to die mysteriously, and the town that she knows and loves starts to crumble under a dark force. 

Firstly, I have to give props to Rohan Eason, the designer of this particular edition of the book. Giving a nod to Whitby’s head monster-in-resident as far as mythology goes, Count Dracula, it is red, black and white and features some gorgeous illustrations of the waves. It even has a map of Whitby on the inside, and speaking as someone who road-tripped with friends to the town myself very recently, the description of Whitby seems to be accurate to the very last cobblestone. You do truly (especially in the first few pages of this book) feel like you’ve been dunked right into it, as Jarvis is very skilled with his descriptive language.

The Whitby Witches with an actual Whitby Abbey backdrop – oh yeah.

Speaking of dunking, the very first page contains one of my very favorite introductory descriptions of a character: “A delicious shudder ran down her spine as she sank her small, irregular teeth into a chocolate digestive.” Who likes extraneous detail like this to set a scene? This gal. And there are little gems of micro-detail throughout the book which really stood out against some of the larger sweeping plot points. 

The book gets weaker as you get further in, as Jarvis tries to shoehorn in more and more plot points. There are quite a few scenes that feel forced and really short, quite obvious that they are there to serve the plot, and I feel Jarvis could have weaved in the detail you squeeze from them more intelligently (something he is capable of doing, as he shows in other parts of the book). Characters occasionally make uncharacteristic choices – self-proclaimed gossipy old ladies choosing to confront danger alone and directly, rather than gathering together their gaggle of friends to declare what they’ve discovered and revel in the attention. The direction of the plot and the surprise reveals of ‘who’ characters really were also obvious from the very first few chapters. The novel starts with such promise, but by the end I was speed reading towards the conclusion. 

The real Whitby with the Abbey perched on the hill (a major featuring location!)

A minor point that bugged me was a consistent flipping between characters names. ‘Miss Boston’ and ‘Aunt Alice’ (the same person) is used interchangeably – often within the very same page, and not with any context of who is addressing her and therefore their relationship to her – it simply changes. The same with the other women – ‘Miss Droon’ and ‘Tilly’ for example, switched between in a single page. It’s small details like this which might be hard for an author to catch, but really can take the reader out of the experience. 

The last 67 pages (or so) of the total 315 were where the action really happens. For me, it was actually the least enjoyable part, due to the fact that I’d already guessed what was going to happen (an honest rarity for me), and a curiously jarring insertion of many facets of Whitby’s rich history within a raging battle. There was too much happening in the final slice of pages for me to really care about the peril to any character. 

I’m giving this 3 stars because I truly enjoyed the first half of the book – it was slow as we got to know the characters, but there was real heart there and the relationships were given time to be fully fleshed out. As a seaside town, Whitby was described beautifully, and you could almost taste the salt water and feel the warmth of the hot potatoes in your characters pockets on a cold night. But by the end there was so much happening that it felt disjointed and I no longer felt like a guest in the home of Aunt Alice, but more like a seagull on the shore, watching the action from afar and hoping it would end soon. 


But hey, I’m not a young adult, so I’m not the target audience. Has anyone else read any of Jarvis’ work and can recommend a better one? Let me know in the comments!

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