When I discovered that Mary Watson’s debut young adult novel was going to be published by Bloomsbury, I knew right away that it was going to be very, very good. I’ve been quoting Watson’s short fiction in my workshops for some time, especially her Caine-Prize winning story, Jungfrau. I’m not the only one who thinks her short story collection, Moss, contains some of the best fiction out there. When she left for Ireland nearly ten years ago, it felt like South Africa had lost a very important voice. Until now.
The Wren Hunt, which draws heavily on Irish myth, begins on St Stephen’s Day – the traditional day of the wren, when masked boys chase a symbolic fake wren and are allowed to play tricks on their friends. Watson’s protagonist, Wren, finds herself chased by such masked boys, but instead of being innocent fun, this hunt ends in violence, leaving Wren rattled and the boys’ tempers woken.
Wren lives with her grandfather in the small Irish village of Kilshamble. They are augurs, or seers, able to read the future in patterns and nature. Their enemies are the judges, ruled by Calista Harkness, a rich heiress guarded by a coterie of young men – including the boys that hunted Wren in the forest.
The judges hold all the power, leaving the augurs’ magic perpetually weak. Their sources of natural power – or nemeta – have either been depleted or are on judge land. Desperate for their share, the augurs hatch a plan for Wren to infiltrate Harkness House in order to find a map that would help them locate ancient stones of power. Fearless, loyal Wren takes to her task with gusto, but she discovers more secrets than she bargained for, as well as an unlikely ally in one of Calista’s handsome guards.
To keep this review relatively spoiler free, I’ll leave it there, but believe me, there’s so much more to this story than my short synopsis, but I’ll leave you to discover the magical twists and turns for yourself.
Watson’s vivid, dreamy prose brings this spellbinding world to life, so that like Wren, the reader is equally mesmerized by a murmuration of starlings, or the stellar spread of forest moss. It’s a world where ancient rituals exist alongside modern-day life, where everything has meaning and everything is connected.
Wren is immediately likable. An orphan who doesn’t fit in, her augur ‘talent’ alienates her from the community even more. But despite her circumstances, she’s brave and feisty, determined to make a difference and fight for what she believes rightfully belongs to the augurs. She walks straight into the nest of snakes, knowing that danger lurks around every corner.
In fact, I was rooting for her character so much that as the twists got twistier and the turns ever more hazardous, I couldn’t bear to look. But unlike an episode of Game of Thrones, you can’t simply fast forward a book. And why would you want to, when every word is so bewitching?
I LOVED this book. It ticks all the boxes for what makes a great YA– magic and myth, romance, big stakes and haunting prose. But a great work of fiction isn’t just ticked boxes. This novel is the work of someone who really knows what they’re doing, who knows how to use words to draw in and enchant her readers, and who has proven herself time and time again as a master storyteller.
Sorry Ireland, I’m claiming this one for South Africa.
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