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Literature / The Witch Watch

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For centuries the dark arts have been wholly mysterious to those that do not practice them. We have mostly the church to thank for this. Their habit of burning books along with their owners has kept us in perpetual ignorance. It wasn't until this ministry was founded that we even began to study what we were fighting.

The Witch Watch is an Alternate History novel by Shamus Young, set in Victorian London; in which a young lady with a head for invention, a boy with a gift for sorcery, and a rotting corpse with a dry sense of humor all find themselves fighting against a strange new threat to the British crown while being under attack of the Church.

Notable for its historical authenticity and a sapid Low Fantasy universe with a rather well-thought-out magic system. Has been likened to the works of Terry Pratchett more than once, but includes just a tad less Lampshade Hanging and Deconstruction and a tad more realism and grit.

This series provides examples of:

  • Animate Dead: A normal use of revivification, which when not done right can bring people back feral. Particularly horrible when used on dogs. And Lord Mordaunt uses this to create an army for himself.
  • Black Cloak: The Four Horsemen. As Gilbert points out 'Why don't cults ever wear yellow robes? It would catch people off guard.'
    • Which is slightly ironic, as he ends up disguising himself in a black cloak for a large part of the book.
  • Boarding School of Horrors: To put it this way, it's unlikely that the pupils of the 'Ravenstead Academy' — where the curriculum mainly consists of fear and only the strongest are allowed to 'graduate' — are allowed to go home for the holidays.
  • Central Theme: Prejudice. People constantly underestimate each other and judge on appearances.
  • Church Militant: The Church's main activities seem to be killing things and burning evidence.
  • Dances and Balls: Sir Brook invites Lord Moxley and other influential people to a dinner and ball of all places to announce his treachery.
  • Disappeared Dad: Alice's missing father casts a long shadow over the story, and her life. It turns out he's dead.
  • Doing Research: Alice is the Witch Watch's scholar, so it's natural her first attempt at solving a problem is to read up on it and even literally carry out experiments.
  • Elemental Powers: Wizards are people who can invoke some of the primal forces of nature. Fire is by far the most common, but cases of wind and rain have been seen too and there are rumours of wizards with the powers of lightning.
  • Fate Worse than Death: Specifically undeath, having your undead head removed and buried beneath the ground where it remains conscious forever. 'We could dig his head up today and still find him screaming for release.'
  • Instant Death Bullet: Averted. Alice shoots a man with a low-caliber pocket pistol, and he survives just fine, though weakened. He even continues his verbal duel with Alice, which she lost when she, y'know, tried to kill him.
  • Kill It with Fire: The alternative way to dispose of an abomination, rather than leaving them as a sentient, powerless head. Also a favorite method of the Church in any situation.
  • Magic is Evil: The opinion of the Church and the general populace. To date most magic seems to have been used to cause suffering and destruction, although the Witch Watch has questions about how true it is.
  • Master Swordsman: Prince Leopold. Although Gilbert isn't bad himself, with his tactic of just let them stab you.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Lord Mordaunt. He's even a Viscount. Of Ravenstead.
  • Necromancy: An important part of a book where the protagonist is raised from the dead.
  • Nobody Here but Us Statues: A very non-comic example with the guards of the Big Bad.
  • Oddly Small Organization: The Witch Watch consists of a dozen or so soldiers - and Alice - to investigate magic in all of Great Britain. By the end of the book, it's been whittled down to just four people.
  • Orphanage of Fear: Taking in orphans and using them as an underfed energy source for dark magic is taking it a little far even for Victorian Britain.
  • Ritual Magic: It seems that most sorcery involves drawing the correct magic circles evenly and correctly. Wizardry on the other hand is an innate ability.
  • Sufficiently Analyzed Magic: Sorcery is passed down mostly through oral tradition and highly illegal books, which the owners sometimes copy, annotate, and modify through their own research. The Church has a tendency to burn and destroy anything magic they find, which makes them less effective at fighting magic than they should be. The titular Ministry disagrees.