I was drawn into Paul Cornell’s ever-so-English rural fantasy after hearing him read from The Lost Child of Lychford at Super Relaxed Fantasy Club, and I’ve been a big fan ever since. With the series now complete – and in lieu of reviewing the last two novellas, natch – let’s take a look at why it makes my heart sing.
An unlikely coven
Lychford has always had – and must always have – a wise woman who can tend the well and guard the borders. But no witch can stand alone against the universe; even one as experienced and cranky as Judith Mawson needs allies, whether she likes it or not (she does not). So the wise woman has an apprentice (even if Autumn is a dyed-in-the-wool atheist who tries to rationalise everything), and traditionally they work with the vicar. Can you call it a coven when one of them is C of E? Not where Lizzie can hear you, anyway.
The first novella describes how these three first unite to hold off an assault by beings who intend to use the dark art of town planning to build a bypass and a superstore, providing employment for the area… and destroying the mystical protections that keep Lychford safe from the many worlds held at bay by its boundaries.
Light and dark
This is a series that often has its tongue in its cheek and a mischievous glint in its eye, but always has more to say. The flashes of comedy leaven what are objectively grim storylines, helping the series remain palatable even when it dives into horror. But even when being flippant, Lychford is here to explore serious topics, exposing implications even as it makes a joke.
So Cornell gets to make sly comments about civic rivalries and volunteer organisations (“this is a magical creature who’s not powerful enough to avoid being kicked out of the W.I.”), but – rather like Juliet McKenna – is conscious of economic tensions, unafraid to make harsher comments about class divides and the abandoned poor. This peaks in The Lights Go Out In Lychford, where the community is brought face to face with their heart’s desires – the Daily Fail comments section brought to life as a brutal teaching opportunity.
The elephant in the room
It’s hard not to read (and delight in) the Witches of Lychford as an extended Brexit metaphor. It’s a series that obsesses about (magical) borders and keeping supernatural beings on the far side of them where they belong. The smooth-talking villain who manipulates opinion and turns the town against itself in the first novella is David Cummings, for crying out loud.
“Disruption is the most important thing. You take the rules, and you rip them up, and in ripping them up, you show everyone that the so-called rules are just polite conventions, just manners. After you rip them up you can create your own manners, your own rules. If you want to.”David Cummings
In A Long Day in Lychford, Brexit drives a plot development that shapes the rest of the series as Autumn’s complicated feelings about borders result in an unintended crisis of worlds with far-reaching consequences. Last Stand in Lychford has a community keen to ignore – or attempt to avert – a disaster, certain it’s somebody else’s problem to sort it out… or somehow their fault since they know all about it. If you’re British, there’s no missing the epic side-eye from these narratives. What makes them bearable is the knowing affection with which they’re delivered.
The thing that will bring me back to Lychford time and again – in spite of dark plots and political subtext that might otherwise require emotional armour – is their compassion. Novella after novella affirms the power of hope and love, the healing possibilities of forgiveness and redemption. Faced with terrible, world-changing decisions, concern for friends and neighbours helps steer a safe course. In spite of great provocation, characters reject the temptation of vengeance (and sure, as a reader you know that means they’re setting themselves up for future grief, but they live by the values they prize). A witch may be an outsider made of thorns and scars and bitterness, but she understands that magic is sacrifice, and selfishness never pays in the long run. So in the end, every witch is made of love, too.
Is it hopelessly idealistic and socially liberal, but so am I – so it is exactly the fantasy I need.
I have not yet written individual reviews for the last two novellas.
Content warning: this series includes dark themes, for all its light-hearted tone and no matter how heart-warming the central philosophy. Across the course of the books the characters grapple with death of loved ones, child abduction, questions of consent, self-harm, racism, dementia, being buried alive, suicide – and that’s just off the top of my head.