The Witchlands #1: Truthwitch

How do you know if a witch is telling the truth? Ask her to repeat it in red! Wait, wrong kind of witch. We’re not bound for Rokkenjima; instead, it’s time to take our first outing into the Witchlands. Let’s unravel the skein of Truthwitch, by Susan Dennard.

Synopsis:

In a continent on the edge of war, two witches hold its fate in their hands.

Young witches Safiya and Iseult have a habit of finding trouble. After clashing with a powerful Guildmaster and his ruthless Bloodwitch bodyguard, the friends are forced to flee their home.

Safi must avoid capture at all costs as she’s a rare Truthwitch, able to discern truth from lies. Many would kill for her magic, so Safi must keep it hidden – lest she be used in the struggle between empires. And Iseult’s true powers are hidden even from herself.

In a chance encounter at Court, Safi meets Prince Merik and makes him a reluctant ally. However, his help may not slow down the Bloodwitch now hot on the girls’ heels. All Safi and Iseult want is their freedom, but danger lies ahead. With war coming, treaties breaking and a magical contagion sweeping the land, the friends will have to fight emperors and mercenaries alike. For some will stop at nothing to get their hands on a Truthwitch.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

As the first book in a new series, Truthwitch introduces a new world, new characters, and a new magic system. Each of these elements, in isolation, seemed great. You’ve got this world where the great nations, after an all-too-brief peace, are once more marching inevitably towards a great war. You’ve got two strong female leads in Safiya and Iseult, and two intriguing foils in Merik and Aeduan. And you have the varied and nuanced powers of witchery. All of these were fantastic. Yet as much as I liked the ideas the book was presenting, I found that I was having a hard time staying interested in the story.

The problem, I think, is one of cohesion. The book doesn’t seem to know what story it’s telling, as it keeps bringing up new plot threads which seem to supercede previous ones in importance, then carelessly discarding them to take the story in a whole different direction. Let me show you what I mean:

The first plot thread to be presented is that Safiya has to go on the run. She and Iseult lost all their money when an attempt to cheat and gambling backfired; an attempt at robbery hit the wrong target and resulting in them becoming wanted by the police; the Emperor has learned that Safiya is a truthwitch and plots an arranged marriage with her to exploit her power; and so they have to run, run, run away while the bloodwitch Aeduan is pursuing them with the relentlessness of the Terminator. Okay, great: you could make a good book out of that.

Then a second plot is introduced: Iseult’s home village has been taken over by an evil cursewitch who uses his vile power to gradually drain the power and life of everyone around him, and Iseult unknowingly falls into his clutches when she comes to petition her family for aid. This plot pretty clearly seems to be an escalation over the previous one: rather than the heroes just trying to escape pursuit, there’s now the lives and freedom of a whole village is at stake. And Corlant the cursewitch is more villainous than Aeduan the bloodwitch: while Aeduan has a sense of honor about things such as Iseult sparing his life when she could have killed him and not killing guards with families just because they get in his way, Corlant has no such compunctions. Plus, there’s the whole “this time, it’s personal” thing with Iseult knowing Corlant from her childhood and him threatening her home and her family, whereas she’d never met Aeduan before and had no connection with him. Okay great: you could also make a great book out of that.

Then a third plot is introduced: the weavewitch known as Puppeteer is terrorizing the land by raising a massive army of magic-wielding zombies. This plot again seems an escalation over the previous one: whereas Corlant is a threat to one village, Puppeteer’s army is a threat to an entire country; and whereas Corloant slowly drains the life out of people over time, Puppeteer immediately kills them and then raises their corpses to do her bidding and add to the ever-growing strength of her army. Furthermore, this time it’s even more personal: while Iseult and Corlant have a shared history, Puppeteer is able to actually invade Iseult’s mind while she sleeps and read her thoughts. Further emphasizing the intimacy of their connection, Puppeteer implies that Iseult is not truly a threadwitch like everyone believes but rather a weavewitch like Puppeteer. It’s a classic evil counterpart situation; Puppeteer is a tailor-made nemesis and Iseult will no doubt have to go through the traditional journey of discovering the true potential of her powers, angsting over whether her powers are inherently bad and she’s destined to turn out evil like Puppeteer, and mastering her abilities in order to finally beat Puppeteer at her own game. Great, great: you could make a great book out of that as well. But probably not the same book as the previous two plotlines, because the narrative is beginning to feel a little overstuffed.

And then a fourth plot is introduced, because why go for a triple play when you could make it a grand slam: the Origin Wells which are the source of all magic in the world have become corrupted, and as a result of this witches live with the danger of losing control of their powers and becoming twisted engines of magical destruction at any moment, but there is a prophecy that a pair of women called the Cahr Awen will appear to restore the wells, cure the corrupted, bring balance to the Force, and give every girl a pony for her birthday. This plot seems is again an escalation over the previous one, because now the protagonists are the Chosen Ones and the fate of the entire world rests in their hands. Okay great: you could… yeah, you know the rest.

I’m not even counting the whole impending war between nations thing as a plot, since it’s more of a setting detail. The point is, out of these four plots of ever-increasing scope and consequence which the book introduces, it chooses to drop the latter three like hot potatoes after briefly introducing them and then spend all its time addressing is the first one, the least significant one. I mean, who cares about the fate of the world, the nation, or Iseult’s hometown: what I’m really interested in learning is whether romance will boom between Safiya and the hot-tempered captain chartered to smuggle her out of the country. I mean, they hate each other at first sight, and I’ve read enough romances to know what that means! First they despise the very sight of one another, then someone gets called a stuck-up half-witted scruffy-looking nerf-herder, and after that it’s only a short way to the altar.

All that said, I’m willing to cut this book some slack because it’s the first in a series and is clearly building up plot hooks which will only be fully explored in later volumes. The title, Truthwitch, indicates Safiya to be the main character of this volume; thus it makes sense that her personal conflict, trying to escape from the Emperor and the others who wish to abduct her for her Truthwitch powers, receives center stage. It’s unfortunate that her plot happens to be the one that interests me least, since it centers on her running away from things rather than towards something – there’s no clear destination, no final end-goal – but it does suggest that I might find the sequels of greater interest.

Ultimately, Truthwitch is a decent novel, and that’s something I’m perfectly willing to repeat in red. So go right on ahead, cue up “Dread of the Grave” on your sound system, and give this book a try..

Final Rating: 3/5

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