The Crow Folk by Mark Stay

Woodville is a small, sleepy village in rural Kent, where everyone knows each other and the pub and the church are at the heart of the community. The Second World War is underway and there are Spitfires overhead and blackout patrols every night. The Crow Folk begins with seventeen-year-old Faye Bright, a resourceful, helpful and inquisitive tomboy, discovering a book full of notes that once belonged to her mother, who died when Faye was tiny and of whom Faye has only limited memories. To Faye's surprise, it contains what seem to be magic spells - as well as some bellringing notations and a recipe for jam roly-poly. Could Faye's mum really have been a witch? And why is Woodville suddenly under threat from a band of malevolent scarecrows?

Mark Stay's The Crow Folk is one of the few books I've read as an adult that gave me the same feeling I used to get from reading certain books as a child. It's often very eerie - the scarecrows really are genuinely sinister, particularly their leader, the persuasive, charismatic Pumpkinhead - but it's somehow cosy at the same time. The blurb for the book mentions Terry Pratchett and Lev Grossman, and I can understand why, but for me it was most strongly reminiscent of Diana Wynne Jones, and there are few bigger compliments I can give than that.

Faye herself is tremendously likeable. Cheerful, practical and resilient, she's someone I'd imagine would have very little time for New Age hippy Wiccan types, and she's also brave and determined. But certainly has her vulnerabilities too, most notably her repressed grief over her mother's early death: the connection she feels to her mother when she discovers the her book of magic is in some ways both a blessing and a curse. The Crow Folk is as much a coming of age story as it is a fantasy adventure, and also has feminist elements: as a woman, Faye isn't allowed to join the Home Guard despite being considerably more able than most of its members, she doesn't understand why she can't wear dungarees to church, and the power of witchcraft is of course very much a female one. Pumpkinhead's influence over the devoted scarecrow Suki is akin to that of an abusive partner, and the mystery of the true nature of each of them is a fascinating one. 

The Crow Folk is the first book in a Witches of Woodville series, and I'm glad to know that there will be more to read about Faye, her friend Bertie Butterworth (whose limp is caused by having either one leg shorter than the other or one leg longer than the other; Faye's never quite sure), the mysterious, pipe-smoking Charlotte and the formidable Mrs Teach. Lovely stuff, and great fun.