Bite-size Books: Witches of Lychford

Book cover: Witches of Lychford - Paul Cornell (3 silhouettes walking down a misty avenue, in sepia tones)A sleepy Cotswold town faces an existential threat: a major supermarket wishes to open on the outskirts. But this is more than just a vexing question of planning permission that will set neighbour against neighbour. This is a threat to the very fabric of reality. At least, that’s what Judith says.

Witches of Lychford is one of the most successful novellas I have ever read. It is one of the few that I have found completely satisfying (The Terracotta Bride being another), presenting rounded characters, nuanced world-building and a gripping plot that delivers with remarkable economy. In fact, there’s so much going on I’m not sure how Paul Cornell managed to squeeze it all in, given the novella never feels rushed or superficial. Perhaps Cornell’s more than passing acquaintance with the TARDIS has taught him how to make things bigger on the inside.

In a short space of time, we meet sharp-tongued eccentric Judith, grieving Lizzie the parish priest, and her once-best friend Autumn – an atheist who unexpectedly runs a magic shop. Each has a burden she cannot lay down: Judith cannot escape her marriage (or her reputation); Lizzie has lost her beloved husband in an accident and is in danger of losing her faith; and Autumn is afraid she’s going mad (because reasons. Yes, I’m avoiding spoilers).

Crucially, they’re neither the maiden / mother / crone triple aspect that you might expect, nor obvious allies – how and why they will be prepared to work together was as big a question for me as what on earth they could do to influence events. When they do join forces, there’s a great deal of fun to be had in the battle of beliefs and the acerbity of the humour.

I didn’t enjoy Cornell’s London Falling, finding it grim and unpleasantly squicky. I was relieved to find that he had considered all the angles in setting his next urban fantasy in a country town. Casting a supermarket development exec as an agent of evil is hilarious, and a plot that could only work outside the traditional big city urban fantasy setting. The setting changes all the dynamics; it’s a different social context that results, unexpectedly, in what I can only call cosy paranormal.

And it’s sheer delight from start to finish. It’s not Midsomer Murders with magic, because Cornell understands that cosy doesn’t have to mean comfortable, and is genuinely interested in the characters he writes about. Sometimes ambiguous, often painful, always affectionate, Witches of Lychford shrewdly recasts familiar debates (all the more bruising post-Brexit) in fantasy trappings.

I remain astounded that Paul Cornell wrapped his tale up in so complete and compact a package; while I will welcome further visits to Lychford (and I write this safe in the knowledge there is another novella to explore), it works perfectly well on its own and is – for my money – a brilliant way to lose yourself for an hour or two.