The Genie Rings – Out Now!

A hat-trick of terror.

Achoo! Oh, goodness, please excuse me: it seems the dust of ages has been allowed to settle on this blog once again. But relax, dear reader, and do not fear, for the arrival of a brand new book warrants some words of celebration. Look upon the glorious cover below, and rejoice!

The Genie Rings is the third book in The Witching Hours series, but it feels like a first in a number of ways. It’s the first book in the series to be set outside of Europe (the story takes place in Iran), and it’s also the first book not to be inspired by European folklore. Instead, book three takes its cues from a very different source: the wonderful collection of Middle Eastern fairy tales known as The One Thousand and One Nights.

Now, I didn’t read all one thousand and one stories – I’m not sure an authoritative edition of that many stories actually exists – but I can report that taking notes on this book was an absolute delight. Some of the stories are already very famous (Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp; Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves) but as I scoured the text for mentions of genies, I found many hidden gems scattered throughout. The Fisherman and the Djinni tells the story of a poor fisherman who catches a copper jar in his net, and who unleashes from within a genie with a “mouth as wide as a cavern, with teeth ragged like broken rocks”; the genie from this story is so perfectly frightening that I quoted some of his dialogue in The Genie Rings as a sneaky homage. The Tale of the Second Dervish is even better, telling the story of a prince who makes an enemy of a wicked genie named Jerjees, and who ends up being transformed into an ape by the genie’s evil spell. The story is filled to the brim with magic, murder, and mayhem, and it even has a secret witch, which is definitely my favourite plot twist of all. Hopefully I’ll be able to tell you more about this witch in a future blog post, but for now, I’ll just leave you with the hilariously chilling scene where the princess finally reveals her abilities to her father:

“How do you know he is bewitched?” asked the King, turning to his daughter.

“Father,” she replied, “when I was a child I had an old nurse, a skilled enchantress deeply versed in sorcery, who taught me witchcraft. I have committed all its rules to memory and know a hundred and seventy codes of magic, by the least of which I could raze your city to the ground and scatter its stones as far as the Mountain of Kaf, turn your kingdom into a bottomless sea, and change its people into wiggling fishes.”

Yeah. She’s pretty cool.

And so, with all of those tales swirling about in my head, I set about composing a new adventure for Anna and Max to embark upon. At first I thought the book might be set in a city, as so many of the Arabian Nights are; but it soon became clear that a desert would be scarier, with the endless, empty plains extending out around a lonely campsite. I based the whole story around a riddle, because I like riddles, and I made sure to include some old stone ruins, because I like those as well. The hardest thing of all was writing a horror story without any forests: a deliberate challenge to myself, as books one and two had featured numerous descriptions of sinister trees and creepy wooden fingers. Luckily, poems like “Ozymandias” showed me that the desert can be Gothic as well, and I truly believe that readers will find this new setting just as frightening as its European counterparts.

Anyway: I finished writing the story. I sent it to my publishers, and they worked their magic, and then Dave Shephard came on board and drew us some of the scariest genies I’ve ever seen. You can find this spooky book in Australian bookstores right now, lurking amongst the darkest shelves, terrifying all of its neighbours. If you’ve followed Anna and Max this far, I really hope you’ll enjoy book three as well.

And that’s all for now. Happy witching!

(Actually, one more note! If you’re keen to read some of The One Thousand and One Nights, you can follow the links embedded in this post – but be aware that those are the old translations by Sir Richard Burton, which are slightly archaic. I recommend picking up the Penguin edition translated by N. J. Dawood – it’s much zippier!)

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Witch No. 15: The Snow Witch

“I hope you have remembered to bring along your discs.”

There are many book genres that I love, but high fantasy has probably always been my favourite. The love affair started in primary school, when my gang of nerdy friends and I would devour all the fantasy content we could get our hands on: Dungeons & Dragons rule books, Warhammer magazines, and, yes, an ancient computer game set in medieval Germany. It was during this period that a friend first introduced me to a choose your own adventure book, titled The Citadel of Chaos. I thought it was marvellous. I started my own collection, gathering together a whole shelf of books with delightfully lurid titles. City of Thieves. Crypt of the Sorcerer. House of Hell.

And, inevitably, Caverns of the Snow Witch.

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Depending on which edition you have, Caverns of the Snow Witch is either the ninth or tenth entry in the Fighting Fantasy gamebook series, which was created by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. Each book in the series is like a personal Dungeons & Dragons adventure, with the reader assigned a clichéd fantasy objective: most of the time it’s simply “kill the evil wizard.” Readers navigate the book by making a decision at the end of each reference, flipping through the book to find out what happens next – “If you wish to turn left, turn to 61” – and are regularly tasked with rolling dice to fight a monster. The books are definitely a bit nerdy, but they’re also good, honest fun.

But enough about that – let’s get to the witch! Caverns of the Snow Witch opens with the hero trekking up the snowy Icefinger Mountains, on a mission to slay a rampaging yeti. The yeti is swiftly defeated, but a dying fur trapper offers a new call to adventure: he has recently discovered an entrance to the legendary Crystal Caves, carved into a glacier by the followers of the evil Snow Witch. The witch is plotting to use her dark powers to bring on a new ice age, and so must be slain as soon as possible. So, what are you waiting for? Get questing!

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Like most Fighting Fantasy books, Caverns of the Snow Witch takes place in the high fantasy world of Allansia, a world seemingly populated by every fantasy monster ever invented. As such, the denizens of the Crystal Caves are an eclectic bunch: you can fight snow wolves and Neanderthals and a frost giant, which are all pleasantly on-theme, but you’ll also need to defeat an illusionist, a “brain slayer,” and a rather flamboyant minstrel. When you do catch up with the titular Snow Witch, it turns out she’s secretly been a vampire all along, and can only be killed by a stake through the heart. What a twist!

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Hilariously, there’s so little narrative logic in this fantasy world that the Snow Witch doesn’t even cast any cold-based spells; even when you fight one of the witch’s Crystal Warriors, the text is quick to point out that the warrior is made of quartz crystals, not ice. It’s all rather ridiculous, but things just go from bad to worse in the climactic exchange between hero and villain, when the player convinces the witch to take part in a battle of wits. Here’s a sample of the dramatic dialogue:

The Snow Witch looks surprised and displeased at the defeat of her Zombies. Suddenly she says, ‘The game we are going to play is called Discs. You will not win, of course. But in the unlikely event that you do, I will give you the chance to escape. I hope you have remembered to bring along your discs. Without them you lose!’ She laughs sadistically at the thought of making up the rules on the spur of the moment.”

“Discs,” it turns out, is just an off-brand version of “rock-paper-scissors.” The reader chooses a shape, and the witch calls out another shape. If the reader’s shape beats the witch’s shape, the witch is immediately vanquished.

It is quite possibly the worst climactic battle I’ve ever read.

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Even so, Caverns of the Snow Witch is still a lot of fun, so long as you know what you’re getting into. When I read the book again this week I died almost immediately at the hands of the witch herself (I didn’t manage to find a wooden stake), but I did make it through to the end on my second attempt, with only a little bit of flip-ahead cheating. For a choose your own adventure book, the narrative path is surprisingly linear; mapping out the choices with pen and paper reveals a pretty simple route to the end.

My pro tip? Don’t pay the first ferry man you meet. You’ll thank me later.


Final Musings

— To be clear, Caverns of the Snow Witch is not my favourite Fighting Fantasy book. Ian Livingstone’s stories generally require the reader to find the “one true path” to make it even slightly close to the end, and I find it discouraging to have an adventure cut short just because I didn’t find a certain mystical doodad. You’ll get a much better role playing experience out of Creature of Havoc, House of Hell, and especially the Sorcery! quartet, all of which were written by Steve Jackson.

— I should also mention that Caverns of the Snow Witch doesn’t actually end with that thrilling game of Discs. Early in the book the hero tries to read some strange symbols on a piece of parchment; it later transpires that the symbols were a Death Spell, and so even though the witch has been defeated, the hero is still doomed to die. Finding the cure is a complicated affair involving a banshee and a pegasus, which is business as usual for Allansia.

— Honestly, the scariest thing about the Snow Witch is the terrifying set of skeleton-filled icicles on the front cover. Credit goes to Les Edwards for that inspired background detail, and also to Gary Ward and Edward Crosby, for their excellent woodcut-style illustrations throughout. The book is actually worth a read just for those amazing monster pictures alone.

— There’s also a witch named Alianna in The Shamutanti Hills, which is the first entry in that brilliant Sorcery! miniseries I mentioned. She doesn’t hang around for long, but she does turn a chair into a wood golem, which is pretty cool.

— Would I ever write a choose your own adventure book? Yes, I absolutely would. In fact, if you Google hard enough, you can still find a piece of writing I entered in a Fighting Fantasy short story competition, back when I was a teenager. Or you could just click here.

— Okay, okay – I only completed Caverns of the Snow Witch with a lot of flip-ahead cheating. But believe me, flipping ahead to sneak a look at an outcome is an essential part of the choose your own adventure experience. Just pretend your hero is a psychic, and you’re good to go!

Happy witching!

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Witch No. 14: Daisy O’Grady

“Does she wear a long black dress? Guess!”

As an Australian writer fascinated by all things witchy, I’m always on the lookout for witches with a distinctly Australian flair. Unfortunately, throughout my reading life so far, such witches have been virtually non-existent – with one notable exception. Daisy O’Grady is a terrifying Australian sorceress, her face gaunt, her hair wild, with a literal skeleton tucked away in her closet. She wears a macabre fox stole around her neck, and proudly mixes potions containing rats’ tails, toe-nails and dead lizards’ scales.

Oh – and she also happens to be the main character in a picture book for children.

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Guess What? is a 1988 picture book written by Mem Fox and illustrated by Vivienne Goodman. It’s a book that sets you up to feel uneasy from the very beginning, establishing a fleeting sense of distance (“Far away from here lives a crazy lady called Daisy O’Grady”) before slowly drawing the reader closer to its mysterious protagonist. Each of the simple, sinister questions asked by Fox (“Is she tall?” “Is she thin?”) gives a further clue to Daisy O’Grady’s identity, building and building until the conclusion of the story seems terrifyingly, unsettlingly inevitable. You hope that Daisy won’t be a witch. You hope there’s going to be a twist. You hope the book won’t give you nightmares.

And, well, there is a twist – but I’m certainly not going to ruin that here!

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Fox’s prose is a masterclass in creating a sense of looming dread, but it’s Vivienne Goodman’s illustrations that give the book its distinctly Australian flavour. Through a series of vivid, almost photorealistic pictures, Goodman provides a detailed insight into Daisy O’Grady’s world, documenting everything from her modest scrubland shack (complete with corrugated iron roof and brick outhouse) to the native animals that live both inside and outside her abode. Every illustration is cluttered with incredible, recognisable detail: The Weekend Australian lying crumpled on the floor; a reconciliation badge pinned to Daisy’s black hat; an ordinary tin of Keen’s Mustard sitting beside a jar of blowfly eyes. It’s a perfect snapshot of Australian farm life, filtered through a weird, witchy gauze. I’ve spoken earlier in this blog about my love for witch products in The Jolly Postman, and Goodman’s own creations – “Lifeless Lizards Scale Powder,” “Heinz Big Red Blood Sauce” – form a lovely complement to that text.

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I’ve always thought of Guess What? as being an edgy, enthralling picture book, and so I was recently fascinated (if not surprised) to learn that, in American libraries, the book was the 66th most challenged book of the 1990s. According to one library website I found, the book was most likely challenged because of its “age-appropriateness and offensive language” – and while age-appropriateness is too subjective to easily refute, I am truly baffled by the second accusation. Does the charge relate to Daisy O’Grady’s wicked collection of 1970s pin badges, which includes buttons that say Sex Pistols and ABBA is Dead? Possibly – but it’s hard to shake the feeling that certain parents were looking for any excuse to object to the book once they found out there was a witch lurking inside.

But don’t let those “offensive” badges put you off – Guess What? is a magnificent picture book, perfectly designed to spook a child even as it delights them. The world needs more witches like Daisy O’Grady: cursing, cackling and cranky while remaining entirely, wonderfully Australian.


Final Musings

— I first had Guess What? read to me when I was one year old. I know this because my copy of the book is signed to me by Mem Fox, with an inscription dated 1992. My witch lit credentials are super legit.

— Mem Fox is notable for having written many, many famous picture books, but my other favourite book of hers is Possum Magic, from 1983. There isn’t a lot of magic in Australian literature, but with these two picture books Fox sets out a vision of a mythic Australia that was hugely influential on me as a young reader. (I even had a pet brush-tailed possum called Hush, rescued from the forest beside our house.)

— From all reports, the best reading of Guess What? you’ll ever hear is by Mem Fox herself. I can’t find a video of her performance anywhere on the web, but my mum recalls that a great, urgent emphasis must be placed on the constant refrain of “Guess? Yes!” In lieu of a video, you can read about how Fox developed the book on her website.

That’s all for now – happy witching!

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The Troll Heart – Out Now!

A blog post worth waiting for.

Yes, I admit it – it has been way too long since I posted anything on this blog. We’ll address that later. First, let’s enjoy some excellent, marvellous, wonderful news.

MY SECOND EVER BOOK IS IN STORES NOW!!

The Troll Heart is the first sequel to The Vampire Knife, and is the second book in The Witching Hours series. It’s an extra special book for me because I based it on the first fairy tale I ever wrote – or at least, the first fairy tale I wrote that I thought was any good. The story came about in 2013, when I took a trip to England with my grandfather, Kenny, who had suddenly decided (at the age of 81) that he’d quite like to see the British countryside. We visited London and Brighton and Kings Lynn, and even met the Queen’s horses at Sandringham, which meant by the time we got to the city of Bath, poor old Kenny was feeling rather worn out. So I went for a walk on my own – and on this walk, I crossed a bridge.

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It costs one shilling to cross the Batheaston Toll Bridge. Or rather, that’s how much it costs if you’re travelling in a motor lorry. If you’re travelling in a carriage drawn by two horses, it costs four pennies, and if you’re crossing with any sheep or pigs, it’ll cost you an additional six pennies per score. (And yes, I know what you’re thinking: how much does it cost to cross in a wheelchair drawn by a donkey? Answer: three pennies.) All of these archaic tolls are specified on a old sign at the start of the bridge – an old sign that left me utterly enthralled.

The concept of the different tolls sat in my head for the rest of our trip, and when I returned home I quickly wrote the outline of a fairy tale, about a wicked troll who controls the bridges surrounding a woe-begotten village. I didn’t end up using any of those wonderful tolls, but I still liked the story. It was the first thing I had written in a long time that I was really proud of.

Two years later, in 2015, I created the characters of Anna and Max, and after their initial tousle with the vampire, I knew just the adventure I wanted to send them on next.

And so that’s why I’m finally breaking my blogging dry spell: to announce the birth of my beautiful new book (and thanks again go to Ryan Andrews for the amazing cover). I’m sorry I was away for so long! Here’s the behind-the-scenes take: in the first half of 2017, I wrote more than 10,000 words for this blog, when what I should have been doing is writing 10,000 words for the third book in the series. Now book three has almost reached its final copyedit, and the temptation is to go blog-crazy once again… but the deadline for book four is also just around the corner. Hopefully I’ll be able to strike more of a balance between the two mediums going forward!

Either way – thanks a bunch for stopping by and reading all about The Troll Heart. If you like scary stories about mists and monsters and weird old magics, this might be the book for you. If you read it, I hope you enjoy it!

Happy witching!

Witches 17

The Vampire Knife – Out Now!

Happy ending not guaranteed.

IT’S HERE!

Today, on August 1, 2017, my first ever novel officially enters the world. It’s really, really, ridiculously exciting. You can find The Vampire Knife in bookshops, and in department stores, and on heaps of websites, too. It’s everywhere!

I wrote The Vampire Knife in the winter of 2015: the longest, coldest winter that Melbourne has experienced in my lifetime. I spun the novel out of a horror story I’d made up to scare my cousin Gypsy the year before, about a girl at a sleepover who hears a strange calling in the middle of the night. As I expanded on that initial idea, I filled the book with as many spooky and terrible things as I could think of: wolves and bears, castles and dungeons, knives and storms and prisoners and blood. Each night I sat at my desk and wrote another thousand words, trying not to feel scared as the wind and rain beat against my bedroom window, typing away until the sun rose once more.

When I was done, I sent the story away to Hardie Grant Egmont (a publishing house in Melbourne that specialises in children’s literature) and they agreed to turn my story into a real book. They found a brilliant artist called Ryan Andrews to illustrate the cover (and to draw some incredible internal pictures too), and they decided to publish the rest of The Witching Hours series as well. Now I get to write five more adventures starring Anna and Max, which is simply the best job I ever could have hoped for.

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You can buy The Vampire Knife at bookshops all through Australia; it’s recommend for all brave children aged 8-12. If you have a local bookshop, you should try and buy it there, but otherwise you can order it online from The Little Bookroom, or Booktopia, or Angus & Robertson, or anywhere else you’d care to Google. I really hope you enjoy reading it.

Got any questions? I’d love to hear them! Comment on this post and I’ll do my best to answer you. I’m currently hard at work finishing off book 3 in the series, but I’ll be back posting more blogs as soon as I’m done. The Year of the Witch must go on!

Thanks for reading – happy witching!

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Witch No. 13: Yubaba

“You humans always make a mess of things.”

Yep, that’s right – we’re doing a Studio Ghibli double feature!

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Kiki’s Delivery Service is a lovely film, but Hayao Miyazaki’s later work Spirited Away (2001) is an absolute masterpiece. The film tells the story of Chihiro, a ten-year-old girl whose curious parents accidentally lead her into a magical world. When her parents are transformed into pigs, Chihiro seeks refuge beside a bizarre bathhouse that caters to spirits and monsters: a haven for the strange creatures to replenish their energies. Chihiro makes a friend, Haku, who tells her that she must take a job at the bathhouse to ensure her safety in the spirit world. To receive her work contract, Chihiro must face Yubaba, ruler of the bathhouse: a grand old witch of considerable power.

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Hayao Miyazaki has featured witches in quite a few of his films, but Yubaba is by far his most menacing creation. More than anything else, Yubaba is big; her mouth looks wide enough to swallow a child whole, and her bright red fingernails are as long and sharp as daggers. Her work at the bathhouse has also made her rich. Enormous jewelled rings glitter beside her knuckles, and her penthouse apartment is filled with gold and precious stones.

Is Yubaba wicked? Yes, she is – but it’s truer to say that she’s just a very shrewd businesswoman. She takes Chihiro’s name from her as payment (rechristening her as Sen) and sets her to work washing floors and scrubbing tubs, hoping that the girl might forget her name and remain a servant forever.

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I know this is a post about witches, but it should also be said that the other spirits and monsters in Spirited Away are an absolute pleasure to behold. The most memorable is probably No-Face, a mute phantom who lures victims in with promises of gold and trinkets, but all of the creatures are dazzling in their own right. There’s Kamaji, the spider-limbed man who works in the boiler room; the River Spirit, a heavily polluted nature being with the head of a golden skull; and even Chihiro’s friend Haku, who can take the form of a coiling sky dragon. Yubaba also has three monstrous henchmen of her own: a giant baby (apparently her son), a trio of bouncing green heads, and a jet black raven with Yubaba’s own face. The film radiates with inventive visuals; every single frame is a work of art.

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Yubaba ends up getting distracted by No-Face’s ravenous rampage, and so Chihiro is able to free Haku from his servitude and force the witch to allow her to bargain for her freedom. Yubaba then reveals her final test: to return home with her parents, Chihiro must inspect a line of pigs and correctly choose which of the swine are her mother and father. It’s a wonderful little puzzle, but the wise and brave Chihiro solves it almost at once, leaving Yubaba fuming. Chihiro thanks Yubaba for everything, and then leaves the spirit world once and for all.

And so ends one of the best and most beautiful films ever made.

Final Musings

— Really, no other filmmaker gets me empathising like Miyazaki. When Chihiro faces a challenging situation, I genuinely fear for her; when she displays kindness, she genuinely moves me. Spirited Away gets me bad, but the empathy hits me even worse in My Neighbour Totoro; the character Mei reduces me to a blubbering wreck almost as soon as the film starts.

— But I do really love Chihiro. She starts the film with less courage than Mei or Kiki, but she still faces obstacles with the same compassion and determination found in all of Miyazaki’s young heroines. I’d love to see all three characters share a scene together!

— The Japanese spirit world of Spirited Away shares quite a few similarities with the worlds of European fairy tales. In both cases, food is shown to be of high importance: in traditional fairy lore, eating fairy food will entrap a human in the fairy realm forever, and in Spirited Away, eating the feast outside the bathhouse is what turns Chihiro’s parents into pigs. A human character having to remember their true name is another theme common to both sets of stories.

— I’ve glossed over a lot of plot strands in my summary above, but it’s worth mentioning that Yubaba has a twin sister who is also a witch. The twin’s name is Zeniba, and she gives Chihiro a special hair tie when Chihiro returns the witch’s magical golden seal. This is a very normal scene by Miyazaki’s standards.

— Another unexplored aspect of Yubaba’s backstory is her casual remark that she never should have taken that oath to “give a job to anyone who asks.” Why did she do that?

— Now that I think about it, the two antagonists of Spirited Away really are consistently fascinating characters. Throughout the story, both No-Face and Yubaba seem to help Chihiro just as much as they hinder her, and she ends the film on good terms with both. Like most Studio Ghibli films, Spirited Away defies narrative conventions!

Spirited Away has the best spirits and monsters of any Miyazaki film, but there are also some very good creatures in My Neighbour Totoro (1988), Princess Mononoke (1997), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), and Ponyo (2008). Ponyo was the first Miyazaki film I ever saw, and it completely hooked me on his unique brand of storytelling and visual creativity. If you don’t know where to start, you might as well start there!

Ponyo and Howl’s Moving Castle also have witch characters in them, but I think we’ve delved into enough Studio Ghibli films for now. Next time, we’ll be looking at an Australian witch – which I think is the only Australian witch I’ve ever managed to find. Come back soon and read all about it!

Happy witching!

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Witch No. 12: Kiki

“Flying used to be fun, until I started doing it for a living.”

How does a girl become a witch? This, for me, is a key question in unpacking the spookiness of witchcraft – although in some cases, the answer isn’t spooky at all. In Hayao Miyazaki’s delightful 1989 film Kiki’s Delivery Service, the solution is simple: at the age of thirteen, each young witch must leave their home (and the witch community) for one whole year, using magic to make their way in the world. Only then will their training be complete.

And so it is that Kiki, a plucky thirteen-year-old girl with a black cat and a broomstick, sets out at midnight on her first great adventure.

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In a first for this blog, Kiki is not a wicked witch. Despite wearing a purple-black robe and flying on a broom, Kiki is defined by her kindness and her work ethic – a strange reversal of the usual witchy tropes. Weirdly, and perhaps even disappointingly, she only ever exhibits two specific powers: the ability to fly a broomstick, and the ability to talk to her cat familiar, Jiji. Upon landing in her new seaside town, the resourceful Kiki thus starts a broomstick delivery service, using the income to pay for room and board.

There may not be a lot of magic on display, but like all of Miyazaki’s best films, Kiki’s Delivery Service is primarily a story about girlhood. The swooping broomstick chases are exciting, but it’s Kiki’s small moments of insecurity that stayed with me when the film was over. I cringed in fear at the scene where Kiki walks past a trio of chatty, popular girls, scared that they might comment on her “ugly” witch dress. My heart sank as she flew home in the rain, already knowing that she wouldn’t be able to meet her one new friend because her clothes were now soaking wet. Kiki is so good, so noble, that I’m genuinely tormented by the setbacks she faces, however small. How can bad things happen to such a nice witch?

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Bizarrely, Kiki’s Delivery Service ends long before the set period of one year has passed, and so we never see Kiki complete her witchy training. Most of Miyazaki’s films knowingly defy narrative conventions (often to wondrous effect), but more than any of his other movies, the lack of closure here feels jarring. Did Kiki learn any new spells? Did she return home safely? Did she become a real witch? These questions seem so important that it took me a while to appreciate Kiki’s Delivery Service as much as the rest of Miyazaki’s filmography. In the end though (with some effort), I managed to accept that the magic in this story simply isn’t the most important thing. What’s important is Kiki: a girl who always strives to do the right thing, and who eventually succeeds in being proud of who she is. She just so happens to be a witch – a good witch, with a good heart. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

 Final Musings

Kiki’s Delivery Service is based on a 1985 book of the same name, written by Eiko Kadona. She also wrote five sequels. I guess if I really wanted closure, I could learn Japanese and read the whole series. Hm…

— Although Kiki’s training is supposed to occur in isolation, we do briefly meet two other witches in the film: Kiki’s mother, who specialises in potions, and a haughty fellow trainee witch, whom Kiki meets mid-flight on her journey to the sea. The haughty witch tells Kiki that her speciality is fortune telling, although she can clearly fly a broomstick as well. So what other spells can Kiki learn?

— Broomstick riding is also something of a mystery. Kiki’s mother insists that Kiki uses her old broom on the night Kiki leaves, because she can “rely on it time after time, in any kind of weather.” Later, when her mother’s broom snaps, Kiki is seen crafting a witch’s broom of her own. But then, at the climax of the film, Kiki commandeers a normal broom from a street sweeper, and is able to fly on that broom as well. So where is the magic coming from? I know I’m not going to get any answers to these questions, but I want them just the same!

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— If you watch the English dub of the film (which I did), that’s Kirsten Dunst voicing Kiki. Also, Phil Hartman voices the cat Jiji, and Tress MacNeille voices the baker Osono, which sometimes makes the film feel oddly like an episode of The Simpsons.

— I consider myself a big fan of Hayao Miyazaki, but I must admit I’m yet to see his three earliest feature films: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), and Castle in the Sky (1986). Of the films I have seen, my favourite is My Neighbour Totoro (1988) – which I loved so much that I now declare it one of my (three) favourite films of all time.

— Hayao Miyazaki is a co-founder of Studio Ghibli, but not all Studio Ghibli films are Hayao Miyazaki films. At present, I’ve only seen the Miyazaki-directed movies, but I really need to get around to watching Grave of the Fireflies (1988), which is supposed to be equally fantastic (but also quite harrowing).

— Earlier this year, I spent two weeks in Japan, and decided to buy myself a Totoro plush toy as a souvenir. Every toy store I went into had a big Studio Ghibli section, and Totoro was always the most popular toy there – but Jiji the black cat was always running a very close second!

Happy witching!

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