Monsters, magic and Columbus

Monsters, magic and Columbus

"My uncle Diego always said there was magic in a story."

In Shana Mlawski's debut novel, "Hammer of Witches" (Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books, 2013), stories are magic — quite literally. Fourteen-year-old Baltasar Infante has grown up listening to his bookmaker uncle's stories — tales about imps who ruin the work of scribes, giant clay creatures that can be summoned with a word and most of all, Amir al-Katib, the legendary Moorish sorcerer who turned traitor to Spain.

But Baltasar always thought they were just that — stories — until he gets into a tight spot and accidentally summons a golem.

The creature saves his life, but he soon finds himself on the run from the Malleus Maleficarum, the sinister witch-hunting arm of the Spanish Inquisition.

Along the way, he picks up a genie (although she doesn't grant wishes; "(o)nly attention-starved genies do that, and I am not attention-starved!") and pays a visit to Baba Yaga, the witch of Russian folklore, who tells him that his true mission is to find al-Katib and prevent the destruction of the world as they know it.

He finds himself on a ship named the Santa Maria, captained by one Cristbal Coln (Christopher Columbus), heading into unchartered waters. Along the way, Baltasar masters his powers as a storyteller, even summoning the Biblical Leviathan, with near-disastrous results.

Mlawski spins a terrifically entertaining tale, but her writing can sometimes be awkward and clunky. ("In the middle of the room sat a large table carved from a single piece of wood, and in the corner lounged a fur-covered bed." One can lounge on a bed, but I have never seen a bed lounge.)

And Baltasar can sometimes be annoyingly clueless. "So you're saying there are spells that can make girls look like boys?" he asks one character, who responds, "Yes! In fact there are about a thousand stories that can do that. Because there are about a thousand stories about women dressing up as men to get the respect they deserve!"

Well, knock me over with a feather duster.

These quibbles are distractions, but they shouldn't be deal breakers for most readers 12 years and older, especially if they like fast-paced historical fiction with a generous helping of fantasy.

There also is a terrific author's note at the end in which she explains which events and characters are historically accurate and which are products of her imagination (she acknowledges that while the people upon which the characters Baltasar and Pedro are based are real, they were most likely not wizards).

Sara Latta is a science writer and author of 17 books for children and young adults. You can learn more about her work and link to past reviews at

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