I wanted to like The Witches’ Kitchen by Allen Williams. And I think, had I been in its target age group, I probably would have. There’s no denying that Williams has a vivid imagination. The world of the Kitchen is populated with strange and delightfully odd creatures like Natterjack, a one-eyed Rastafarian imp (at least, if his description and illustration are anything to go by). These myriad mad beasties remind me strongly of dark Jim Henson films like Labyrinth. They’re certainly interesting, and would undoubtedly have captivated my younger self. Williams’ art truly shines, though that should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with it. It’s spectacular and a high point of The Witches’ Kitchen.
Unfortunately, what can delight my inner child is not necessarily enough to silence my outer adult. Though the ideas in The Witches’ Kitchen might be fantastic, the writing itself does not hold up its end of the bargain. For one thing it is, sadly, rather overwritten. I get the sense that Williams was trying to describe in words every little detail he would normally describe with pen or brush strokes. An example from the beginning of the book:
Sarafina obeyed her sister, extracting a small bloated body from a red velvet sack with her thick, rough fingers. A huge hulking woman, possessing incredible strength, Sarafina’s pale, pink mottled skin hosted patches of dark brown freckles across her cheeks and nose.
Yikes. I love adjectives and adverbs, more than most writers. But as a writer, I know that many times they have to be cut back on. Most descriptions in the book are like this and it’s just too much. Added to this was a dearth of commas. While many authors rely too heavily on commas, Williams’ writing lacks them to the point where a number of sentences read as run-ons. Now, I have an advance copy, so it’s possible that the commas at least were fixed for the final version. But I doubt the overload of adjectives was.
The pacing is addled. I found myself wondering why things were happening and, all too often, what was going on. Things just seem to happen and characters just seem to appear, all at random.
Neither of these things are necessarily the sort of thing to stop my reading, especially since the ideas were so intriguing.
Unfortunately, the dialog was the straw that broke the reader’s back. Most of the writing, if a bit overdone, is perfectly acceptable. But if I had one well and truly negative thing to say, it would be that the dialog is awful. Contractions are dropped in and yanked out entirely at random, creating an oddly jerky, stilted tone. Nothing is particularly succinct or witty, and most conversations play out the exact same way.
What I mean is, the conversations will go like this: A new person, creature, thing, concept, etc. will appear on the scene. Toad will ask what it is (or means). Someone (usually Natterjack) will explain in thorough but not particularly interesting or realistic feeling terms. This may spawn another question from Toad, causing another such answer. Sometimes it goes on even beyond that. It’s just far too heavy with exposition, none of which is well disguised. I think Williams’ could write a fantastic role-playing book, but this style of dialog really doesn’t work.
And well, I admit to some confusion as to why this is set in a kitchen at all. I know it’s a witches’ kitchen and it’s full of magical things, but I would expect at least some of them to relate to kitchens as we know them. Yet none of them did. I felt like the book could have been set in a number of other places without remotely changing the tone.
Eventually I realized I was reading simply to get it over with, so I stopped. As I said before, I honestly do believe The Witches’ Kitchen will appeal to its target audience. But much YA literature these days crosses the barrier to appeal to adult readers as well, and I don’t believe Williams’ first effort will achieve that.