Book cover: The Lost Child of Lychford - Paul Cornell (silhouette of a boy in an avenue of trees)‘Tis the season in Lychford: Autumn is feeling more single than ever, Judith is almost used to the idea that she might have friends, and Lizzie’s struggling to keep her Christmas spirit in the face of Greg Lake, a Christmas Eve wedding and ghostly visits from a scared young boy…

I picked up Witches of Lychford after I heard Paul Cornell read the opening chapter of Lost Child at a Super Relaxed Fantasy Club last year. Witches swept me off my feet – and Lost Child builds on that success to deliver an even bigger sucker punch in the feelings. I failed to review it when I read it last year, but it looks set to be an annual reread because it may just be a perfect Christmas read.

Lychford has settled back into sleepy nonchalance after the Sovo incident, but with Christmas approaching the town is gearing up for the festivities. Christmas lights, Christmas songs… and a Christmas haunting for an unusually irritable Lizzie. Disturbed, she tries to tell Autumn and Judith about it, only to have her ghost become fuel for the endless bickering between two women still struggling to find a balance of authority between employee and employer vs traditional hedge witch and logically-minded apprentice.

Autumn has other things on her mind, anyway: with Christmas approaching, she’s entirely too aware of being single in a small town, if not quite desperate enough to trek all the way to the bright lights of Swindon in search of a man (and it’s little throwaway lines like this that make the Lychford books a particular joy if you’re English. Oh, Autumn). And if that weren’t enough, Finn, Prince of the Fae, has started sending her email.

When it becomes apparent that Lizzie’s ghost is alive, well and attending the local primary school – and that Finn is worried about the fabric of reality – Judith deduces that the ghost is a warning of a terrible event in the future. But nobody suspects the Trojan horse at the gate: Lizzie’s Christmas Eve wedding.

The Lost Child of Lychford is less a mystery of what’s going on and more a thriller of how on Earth the Witches – separated and weakened – can put a stop to it. I enjoyed this the first time around; it gets even better on a reread. There’s a visceral horror to Lizzie’s possession, her conscious awareness of the horror of what is being asked of her and her physical inability to stop it (let alone her subconscious attempts to do so). I enjoyed the subversion of Autumn’s initially irritating obsession with finding a man, and her sheer determination to put aside her imposed feelings.

But my favourite aspects of Lost Child are two-fold. Firstly, I delight in the contrast between Judith’s sensory hedge magic – all five senses coming into play time and again as she tastes for the ghost; sniffs for undue magical influences; feels the borders – and Autumn’s determination to apply logic. For all Judith routinely derides her apprentice for clinging to science, it works even when applied to magic – in Lost Child as in Witches, Autumn wrestles with the problems in her own way to find a solution. I love the implicit suggestion that these are not two systems at war; it’s just perspective and application.

…which brings us to the climax of the novella, which I normally avoid discussing in a review (spoilers, sweety, you’ve been warned), but can’t on this occasion because it’s just so emotionally satisfying.

2017 – like 2016 before it – has been a hell of a year for battering my belief in common sense, sympathy and human goodness. So any story that starts as a ‘defeat your enemies’ (including an entirely satisfying beheading) and then stops itself in its tracks to reject wrath, violence and extrajudicial vengeance has got me right in the heart of my bruised idealism. Lizzie is a vicar. She has to – and does – uphold Doing The Right Thing, in spite of extreme provocation.

“They’ll be back, you know,” he said. “That’ll be your fault.”

“No,” said Lizzie. “Now it’ll be theirs.”

Honestly, my heart just explodes with love for this sort of storytelling. So chalk up Lost Child alongside Doctor Who as something I think I’m going to want to be part of every Christmas.

…and you know, I’d never even heard of the Greg Lake song that becomes the focus of Lizzie’s festive irritation until I read Lost Child, but I’m going to leave you (through a haze of tears, I won’t lie) with the last verse, which is where this whole novella starts and, joyously, ends:

I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave New Year
All anguish pain and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear
They said there’ll be snow at Christmas
They said there’ll be peace on Earth
Hallelujah Noel be it Heaven or Hell
The Christmas we get we deserve

*****