Friendship and Magic in Witchlight by Jessi Zabarsky

Sanja’s life is small. There are few opportunities for a townie with an overbearing father, dismissive brothers, and a body she has been taught to feel ashamed of. Though she wanders the countryside, Lelek’s life is just as narrow. Alone, betrayed, and stripped of much of her magic, she scrapes by on deception and theft. A chance encounter sends the two young women on the road together after Sanja agrees to teach Lelek how to fight with a sword in exchange for the witch no longer using her powers to cause harm.

At first the girls meander through villages and towns looking for witches to fight as a way to earn fast cash and help Lelek practice her magic skills, but soon their journey becomes a quest as they search for the magic stolen from Lelek by her former teacher. Figures from the girls’ pasts turn up in tragic and painful ways, and an act of reckless violence threatens the fragile relationship they’ve built. To become whole, these broken young women must find the pieces of themselves that were lost or taken from them and learn to love their imperfect selves.

This is a story about two young women getting to know each other and finding their way in the world. Lelek and Sanja are flawed and fallible, scarred yet earnest. They help each other become the best versions of themselves while allowing for each other to make mistakes. Living on the road hardens Sanja as it softens Lelek. The human girl finds her voice and her strength while the witch girl opens her heart and learns to trust. It’s a quiet and intimate story with short bursts of action and intensity, which gives it a breezy, amiable feel. Witchlight is the kind of comic you read while rocking in a hammock on a warm, summer’s afternoon.

There is not much plot to Witchlight; the story wanders as much as Lelek and Sanja. But do not take that as a negative. Part of the graphic novel’s charm is its rambling nature, but there is nothing aimless or frivolous about what Zabarsky is doing. She describes the story as a “shojo adventure” comic. For those who don’t read manga, shojo (also spelled shōjo and shoujo) is manga aimed at young women that often centers on relationships, both platonic and romantic. I would’ve liked a little more adventure, but the shojo aspect fits well.

Occasionally the story feels too brief and the world building too sparse, both of which have the deleterious effect of making some of the action confusing to follow. Because Zabarsky is more focused on the relationship between Lelek and Sanja, their interactions with other characters are frequently rushed over so she can show how the girls feel about those interactions. Most of the conversations the girls have with other characters act as a catalyst for the next emotional growth spurt, but since the characters delivering that change are thinly defined, it makes the girls’ maturity feel less earned. Again, it’s clear Zabarsky thought deeply about Sanja and Lelek’s world—the cultural details differentiating the various villages are fascinating and creative—but she’s overly reliant on the “show” and not enough on the “tell.”

Where the world building really shines is in the demographics. The characters look like real people. I squealed out loud and with great delight when I spotted Lelek and Sanja’s unshaved legs. There are a lot of different kinds of queerness on display as well. With Witchlight, diversity and inclusivity in skin tone, body type, queerness, and gender identities and expressions are the default.

Beautiful artwork, clean lines, good panel flow, and a nice mix of detailed and solid color backgrounds make it easy for readers who aren’t used to comics format to fall into the story. It’s also worth highlighting the skillful work done by colorist Geov Chouteau. The pastel colors shift as the story progresses: more muted in the beginning and brighter at the end, with dark tones for flashbacks and nightmares. It’s effective in its simplicity and breathes life into Zabarsky’s wonderful art.

I went into Witchlight knowing nothing beyond the description provided by the publisher. It sounded interesting enough and I liked the cover so I thought, “Why not?” Normally I like to be more thoughtful in the content I choose to review, but I was weeks into not being able to leave my apartment and I wanted something fresh and unknown. Lucky for me, Jessi Zabarsky’s graphic novel hit the spot. It was exactly what I needed.

Witchlight is available from Random House Graphic.

Alex Brown is a teen services librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.

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