Author: Susan Dennard
Publisher: Tor Teen (Macmillan)
Published: January 2016
Rating: 2 / 5 Stars
For Those Who Enjoyed: Throne of Glass, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Stardust, Lord of the Rings, Rebel of the Sands
*This is not a spoiler-free review! You can find a spoiler-free version on Goodreads!
Welcome to the Witchlands, where everything’s made up and the plot doesn’t matter…
This book made me irrationally angry. Which is probably what I get for picking up a book with a Sarah J. Maas endorsement on the front cover. What kills me is that it took me two thirds of the way through before I even realised it was making me angry. And that’s not even to say Dennard is a terrible writer. She’s just not a character writer. …and not a plot writer.
What she is blatantly skilled at is action writing, something I personally struggle with. That being said, without the other two elements to buoy the narrative development, the rest of the story falls apart. Dennard should be writing for video games or DnD campaigns, just not… novels.
Speaking of DnD, this entire world she’s created is essentially a dungeons and dragons adventure. There are bards and paladins and everyone’s got different powers and swords they’re constantly fighting things… Which could’ve been fun. If Dennard were doing anything particularly original with it. It’s a shame, because there are clearly elements where she’s trying so hard to make the world her own. Her world is called the Witchlands, where everyone wields some form of witchcraft or another and for some reason, despite the fact that some witches control the sea, or the weather, or people’s blood, or poisons, the Truthwitch is the most powerful, sought after of them all…
I should just say, this story shouldn’t have followed Safi (the Truthwitch) at all. She’s the worst type of fantasy hero. She’s impulsive and selfish and completely lacking in self-preservation and motivation… The choices she makes are very quick short-term fixes to dire situations without any concern for the long-term. The novel opens with her losing all her money at cards because a guy who flirted with her once charmed her into believing him. (Let me remind you, her speciality is in identifying the truth). During several emergency situations that unfold because of this mistake, she proceeds to intentionally rip up her clothes multiple times, simply for convenience’s sake. The DnD player in me says ripping up her skirts so she can be more effective in combat and giving chase sounds aesthetically pleasing. Why don’t fantasy writers use this option more often? But then I think about it a little more and…
It’s just not practical. Which is literally every single decision she makes in this novel. Another example of poor choices the protagonist makes is although these villages seem to be full of perfectly nice people who might lend her things if she asked, she still beats passing strangers up on the streets so she can steal their weapons. Or not just weapons. Their horses. She beats people up and steals their horses. On numerous occasions! These villagers must be completely desensitised to being used and abused because Safi’s not the only culprit who gets away with it. Her love interest, Prince-and-occasionally-Admiral Merik has this seemingly loyal crew who adore him and think he’s the best, yet he chains them up below deck as punishment? This same person shows up for the first time ever at this new settlement for his people (who have been suffering from the royal family’s debts), and everyone’s celebrating him in the streets, even though there is literally no explanation as to what he’s done to warrant such devotion.
There is literally no explanation as to why lots of things happen in this book. Which is why the development is so weak in all cases. Why are all the kingdoms at war? Why do all the rulers want the Truthwitch of all the other witches for their power grab? Why would the Emperor want lowly no one Safi as his Empress? Why isn’t this story about her soul sister, Iseult?
Why isn’t this story about Iseult?
Dennard missed such an opportunity by not making Safi’s BFF the protagonist here. Iseult has so much going on and is easily the most dynamic character in this narrative. On the surface, she’s got this meek, stuttering Tara from Buffy the Vampire Slayer vibe, but you find out she actually packs more of a Willow punch with Buffy’s fighting skills. She comes from this nomadic tribe that’s being usurped by this creepy Puritanical preacher a la Fantastic Beasts. And she’s got this complicated relationship with her mother, who supposedly abandoned her when she was young, but in actuality, she was protecting her, and she’s taken on this new apprentice to replace her… She clearly comes from a minority background, like she’s representative of Native or Romani culture even though Dennard doesn’t ever put it into so many words, so she’s got a lot of old world traditions, and she’s constantly the center of casually racist threats (by the other characters, not the author). Meanwhile, she’s also got this ominous voice in her head gently swaying her to the dark side and even though everyone thinks she’s so powerless, she’s actually the most powerful of basically everyone…
Why isn’t this story about her?
I really wish Dennard had done the bold thing and killed off Safi. Iseult would’ve gone total Dark!Willow on everyone and destroyed everything. It would’ve been great and I would’ve loved it. Instead, we got Safi, being selfish and dumb and completely contradictory to her powers… Apparently, lie-detecting protagonists in fantasy is in right now, because this was the second of three books in a row I’ve read with such a trope. So I know for a fact girlfriend’s not doing it right. At all. Having read Traitor to the Throne immediately before this one, where Amani’s fact-checking every little thing someone says to her, Safi never once uses her power. And when she does, it’s like “oh, yeah, I believed it was true, even though it wasn’t, so my power did too”. Why is everyone running in circles, trying to find this useless girl when Iseult is bursting at the seams with every magic there is?
Why wasn’t it about Iseult???
To sum up, this novel should’ve been about Iseult. And I’m upset about it.
I’ll be reading and reviewing the new sequel, Windwitch, soon, so we’ll be able to see if Dennard makes good on that front…