Jack Priest,
Night Witch
(Bootleg, 2005)

Carolina Coffee is an 11-year-old girl who lives with her mother. Carolina's father is alive, but his whereabouts are unknown. Her secret pet ferret is Sheila. Arthur "Arty" Gibson lives with his long-suffering mother and his abusive, tyrannical, alcoholic father. He is overweight, and often picked on by peers, especially Brad Peters.

John Coffee is Carolina's on-the-run father, who is a great guy, except he happens to be a thief and has stolen the Night Witch's locket. Sarah Sadler is Arty's and Carolina's teacher. Harry Lightfoot is the local milkman, who is Native American and quite versed in dealing with evil creatures like the Night Witch.

The Night Witch is part vampire, part werewolf, and part sorceress. She can appear as a wolf, a hyena, a bear, a condor or an old woman. She is immortal, as long as she has her magic locket. But John Coffee stole the locket, without knowing its significance, and gave it to his daughter, Carolina, during one of his unpredictable visits.

And so the Night Witch wants her locket back, as she is aging, and the locket will prevent that. She will gladly (and gleefully) kill anyone who gets in her way. Carolina and her friend, Arty, are trying desperately to stay one step ahead of the Night Witch, and they do not even know why she is chasing them. John Coffee is trying to simultaneously, or alternatingly, flee from the Night Witch and face her down to protect his daughter. Eventually, Sarah Sadler gets mixed up with John Coffee, and helps out.

The story is very fast-paced, with lots of action, no punches pulled and no slow spots. The horror of the Night Witch is quite apparent. I also felt like I was starting to get to know the small town that is the setting. I also liked the way the relationship between Arty and his nemesis, Brad, turned out.

I liked Jack Priest's other books more, but this one just had too many flaws. John Coffee is a really great guy in every way, except he's also a lifelong thief? I don't buy that. Arty's mother is a non-entity, but suddenly becomes a great parent once Arty's father is no longer in the picture? No sale there, either. Sarah Sadler is a very respected teacher, who ends up making Thelma and Louise look like church-mice? Nope. Arty and Carolina -- are they 11 or 16? Their relationship spans that age-range and ends up not fitting at all. Carolina is a wonderful, smart little girl, who spouts profanity like a sailor. In other words, the characters just don't seem realistic to me.

There is also a major problem with the Night Witch character. Priest does a great job of making her powerful and evil, but she remains very undefined. I do not learn her story until late in the book, and the nature of the locket is pretty vague. How did it become magical? Why can't she make another, instead of traveling a thousand miles to chase it down? What I think would have helped a lot is the plot device that J.R.R. Tolkien used beautifully in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, wherein Smeagol/Gollum had brief soliloquies or conversations with himself, and thus gave the reader a perfect picture of his thinking, plotting, motives and history. If we had several mini-chapters of the Night Witch doing that, she would have been a much less vague character, and a much more interesting one, to boot.

Night Witch was fun and interesting to read, and I ran through it like a 50-yard dash, but it also left me only partially satisfied. Too fast, too light, too much left unanswered. Jack Priest did a better job in Gecko.

review by
Chris McCallister

4 August 2007

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