Review: Truthwitch (The Witchlands, #1)

Truthwitch by Susan Dennard

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Some spoilers ahead.

“Truthwitch” is my first encounter with Susan Dennard’s writing. I’ve been unsure how to rate it, but have settled with 2 stars. There are some parts of the book which merit a 3-star review – and those parts ensure that I will be buying the sequel. However, I have some serious issues with Dennard’s worldbuilding and writing style. Issues which made me wonder if Dennard’s editor has been reading her manuscript with one eye closed, and made me almost want to rate the book with a single star.

So, what’s nice?

1. The friendship between the two main characters, Iseult and Safiya (Safi), and their loyalty towards each other was endearing. From the beginning, Dennard manages to make the strength of the relationship believable which in turn builds a strong foundation for some of the choices, the two characters make later on in the novel. As Iseult is frequently harassed due to her ethnicity, Safi is fiercely protective of her “Threadsister” and is constantly on the verge of kicking some prejudicial asses. In turn, Iseult is willing – and often unintelligebly so – to accept and embrace Safi and all her rash, impulsive decision making, having faith in her friends good intentions, however chaotic and undesirable the consequences of said actions may be.

2. Aeduan, the “Bloodwitch”. He is by far the most intriguing and compelling character in the novel, a complex villain whose layers and inner conflict are slowly unravelled as the story progresses. I never quite developed a clear vision of his face and physical features, though, apart from the fact that his eyes turn red when he uses (certain types of?) his magic. In the beginning of the story, Aeduan seems like your average bad guy – driven by greed and inherently malicious. As it turns out, his reasons for acting like he does are complex (and not fully disclosed in the novel – but will undoubtedly be unfolded in the sequels) and his sense of otherness, due to the fact that his type of witchery is very rare (he’s, as far as I perceived, the only one alive?), makes him likeable and relatable, especially in relation to Iseult and the exclusion, she’s used to suffering. He’s guided by some strongly held principles – e.g. He abstains from killing a guard when perceiving that he’s a parent. He has a deep sense of loyalty towards his former mentor, whom he saves despite the fact that it means letting his target escape for the time being.

3. Some of the magical properties and functions:

– The concept of “bloodscent”: The Bloodwitch is able to recognize and track persons due to the unique (I guess?) scent of their blood, with Iseult as the (as far as I gathered) only exception.

– “Cleaving”: When a witch is cleaving, his or her blood turns black and black pustules burst out on the skin, spraying blood all over. What’s not to love about that? ;D Not all witches are in danger of cleaving (only those with elemental magic connected to Earth, Wind and Water), but for those who are. the reason seems to be some sort of corruption of their magic. A cleaved witch is a serious threat to anyone in the vicinity, and must be killed a.s.a.p.

– Threadwitches: Iseult is a Threadwitch and as such she’s able to read any person’s emotions, which sort of manifest as threads in a variety of colours, swirling around (above?) the body. Each emotion is tied to a specific colour, which makes it possible for Iseult and every other Threadwitch to read the feelings of everyone else than themselves. A Threadwitch can’t see her own threads or the threads of another Threadwitch.

4) The seafoxes were pretty cool too. 🙂

What annoyed me (somewhat):

1. The scene where Prince Merik and Safi dance. First of all, I had a very hard time imagining the steps of the dance: there’s a lot of stamps, twirls and flicking of the wrists going on; at some point they start to skip and hop and writhe, and in the last phase of the dance they get like really, really close, with Merik slamming his body into Safi’s when she leaps back from him, which is supposed to mimic “the tidal tug of the sea against the river”. The dance is in itself inspired by the movements of the sea during a storm, and is a dance typically performed by lovers.

Well ain’t that something.

I know it’s meant to be an escalation of the romantic tension between Safi and Merik (in the style of “boy meets girl, boy and girl argue, boy and girl appear to despise eachother, boy and girl are inexplicably drawn to eachother, boy and girl want to deny this, but the attraction speaks louder than words”, and so on and on), but somehow all it got me thinking about was this image:

Duke Weselton doing the Chicken Dance

2. Some of the descriptions of windwitchery are hilarious, though I’m sure, they’re not meant to be. Maybe I’m just too juvenile to appreciate the gravity of the situation, but …

“Merik ground to a halt. That was Safiya’s voice. Behind him. He twisted back slowly, his chest heaving now. His winds throbbing inside, worse than before. Worse than they’d been in years. His control was slipping away.”

– Sounds like someone ate too many beans at dinner last night, if you ask me …

“Without thought, Merik threw himself forward in a painful thrust of his own wind.”

– *snickers*

3. The whole Cahr Awen thing. Of course, Safi and Iseult would be the long awaited, semi- mythical duo, destined to save the world.The tale of the prophesied saviour(s) is a very common theme in a lot of fantasy (and in a lot of plain, old mythical narratives also), and I have no preconfigured distaste for the concept. But in Truthwitch, it is just poorly executed and hence becomes an almost insufferably annoying cliché. From the get go, it’s obvious that the girls are very special snowflakes, but, rather than being something, I as a reader was led to discover through the development of the storyline, I felt like this view was sort of imposed upon me, sensing the underlying attitude of the author. I really, really don’t like when I suspect that an author is trying to coax his or her readers into liking or disliking a character. When it’s not being properly supported by the development of the storyline and characters, this is a technique which – most of all – comes off as manipulative and lazy. It reminds me of what Sarah J. Mass did to Chaol Westfall in Queen of Shadows. I still haven’t forgiven you, Sarah J. Mass! *shakes fist*

4. I felt like Dennard introduced an – at times – bewildering amount of names and concepts, many of which were never thoroughly explained or developed. E.g.: The apparently widespread hostile attitude toward the Nomatsis. I don’t remember there being a proper explanation, and for a feature so prevalent throughout the story, it comes off as strange, at best. Sloppy, at worst. Another example is the concept of a “Threadfamily”, “Threadsisters” and “Threadbrothers”. I get that some Threads build, while others break or bind. So it makes sense, that blood ties are not the only way of being connected to other people. The way, Merik and Safi’s Threads are beginning to intertwine, gives some idea in regard to how the concepts can be understood. However, when an author chooses to introduce such a vast array of ideas, names and concepts, as Dennard does in Truthwitch, it’s rather important to help the reader anchor this knowledge – or else, the worldbuilding becomes confusing and messy.

… I could add more complaints to this rapidly growing list, but it seems to boil down to this: bad editing. Dennard has created an interesting world of witchery, action and romance, and she has an amazing imagination, no doubt about it. It just appears to me that the worldbuilding and the storyline could have been so much better, had someone helped Dennard tighten it up. Isn’t that what an editor’s supposed to do, anyway?

All in all: worth a read, and I’ll be buying the sequel without second doubts. But I’m definitely not expecting more than very light entertainment. However, sometimes that’s all one wants, anyway.

 

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