Authors: Susan Dennard
Fantasy > Magic
Published/Publisher: January 5th 2016/Tor Teen
Format Read In: Hardcover
Summary from Goodreads:
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.
My Review [SPOILERS AHEAD]
“There was no ignoring the sandstone grit of fear along her spine—-nor the certainty in her gut that Cartorra and Marstok would show up here. And that they wouldn’t care at all about breaking the Truce if it meant getting their hands on a Truthwitch.” – Truthwitch, S. Dennard
This book was the last book I finished in 2016, and now it’ll be the first book I’ve reviewed in 2017! I also realized that I haven’t reviewed anything since September…yikes.
I picked this one up because it’s my book club’s choice, but the genre (YA fantasy) is absolutely in my wheelhouse so I probably would have picked it up at some point anyway! I love the cover (but neither of our protagonists are Waterwitches–witches who can manipulate water–so the swirling water is lovely but totally misleading); you get a real Assassin’s Creed vibe from the outfit, but I also liked the alternative cover with the beautiful gold text. Even the German cover is quite pretty, though their illustrations are not how I pictured our protagonists!
In the Witchlands, some people are born with powers that correspond to the five elements, and are titled accordingly–Earthwitches, Airwitches, Waterwitches, Firewitches and Aetherwitches. There are also specialized types, such as Poisonwitches (specialized Waterwitched), and Voicewitches (specialized Aetherwitches who are essentially human telephones that let people talk to each other over through their vocal chords). There are also the five Origin Wells, sources of great influence, representing the five elements, but they have long since dried up. The Cahr Awen are the two witches born from the Wells with the power to defeat any evil. But no new Cahr Awen had been born in almost five hundred years, and their influence dried up along with the wells. Then there are the Cleaved, witches who have been turned into zombies and lose control of their powers, lashing out at anyone nearby. No one knows how one is cleaved, but at the moment, it looks like any witch associated with the Origin Wells that have completely dried up are affected. Only with the return of the Cahr Awen can the Cleaved me healed and the Wells returned.
The story follows Safiya fon Hasstrel and Iseult det Midenzi, two heretics–unregistered witches–who live their lives being tutored in language and combat, and travel around the land, living hedonistic lives. All that changes when they get caught in a plot to save the Twenty Year Truce, a document signed by all the nations in the Witchland that halted all wars for twenty years, at the end of which renegotiation between the lands could be brought up again. To stop Safiya from becoming betrothed to Emperor Henrick of Dalmotti, her uncle, Eron fon Hasstrel, sends Iseult back to her original home and sends Safiya to the ship of Merik Nihar, the prince of Nubrevna, to sail to the abandoned port town of Lejna and escape a life of servitude as the Emperor’s Truthwitch when the war finally hits. But the girls manage to reunite sooner rather than later, and together they face down being hunted by a Bloodwitch, battling vicious monsters called sea foxes, and grappling with the changing landscape of their world.
What an adventure! Honestly, the pacing was so fast that there were only a handful of quiet moments when characters weren’t (a) fighting monsters, (b) physically fighting each other, (c) verbally fighting each other, or (d) fighting themselves. It starts at the beginning of a scuffle and just keeps that action going which made it easy for me to whip through the story. The plot seemed complicated at times but it really boils down to trying to make sure that none of the nations, who are entering into an inescapable war, can get their hands on a Truthwitch. However, I kind of felt like there were missing pieces, especially in Saf’s uncle’s plan. By the end of the book, whatever plan he’d been working on for many years to stop the Truce from ending failed, and it feels like he didn’t actually have a plan? Like the only part of his plan was to send Saf away? Maybe that was the only part of his plan and I just didn’t clue in but, well, so much for a group of renegades, masquerading as simple civilians, plotting an intricate plan to try and at least slow the end of the Truce. I feel like there should have been more fall-outs–people being revealed as agents, places that are found out to be meeting spots for rogues torn apart–if such a long-winded plan had failed so spectacularly, but I suppose the focus had to stay with our characters and anyways there’s a second book to the series to fill out all that.
Still, I liked the plot, and it was a very character-driven story, which are my favourites! The climax was quite riveting and I’m happy with how the first in the series ended.
The story follows Safiya fon Hasstrel and Iseult det Midenzi, two young women who are so close, they see each other as sisters (“Threadsisters”).
Safiya is a Truthwitch, a witch who can tell truths from lies, and a domna, a member of high Cartorran nobility. However, she is anything but a noblewoman; fiery, temperamental, stubborn, and unladylike, she’s never felt a connection to her status, especially with her only living relative being her drunk ex-commander uncle. She’s more of the brawn to Iseult’s brains, but both are highly skilled in fighting.
Iseult is a Threadwitch, a witch who can see threads emitting from other people that each represent an emotion, and a Nomatsi, a group of nomads discriminated around the world. Being a Nomatsi Threadwitch means that, unlike Safiya, Iseult was trained to stifle her emotions, before she ran away from her tribe six years prior due to being unskilled in the practices of her people.
Above all other relationships, the friendship between the two women is the strongest, more important to them than any romantic or familial relation, and that was nice to see! Friendships, especially female friendships, are hard to find, despite movements towards changing the trend, so I really cared more about their connection. I liked how independent they both were when it came to their respective statuses–Safiya’s rejection of her nobility and Iseult’s rejection of the rules of being a Threadwitch–and their never-ending fight to truly be free to find a home.
I liked Safiya’s earnest nature and how much she develops to be more self-aware of her own selfish nature, but it’s Iseult who really captured my attention–apart from her two tutors and Safiya, even other protagonists were not particularly kind to her. Her struggle with having no real place in the world–being shunned from her tribe for not adhering to their exceptions, and being shunned by the outside world for her ethnicity–as well as her complicated feelings towards her mother Gretchya and insecurities in regards to Alma, the talented Threadwitch who ended up replacing her, was really compelling. There’s still so much we have to learn about her abilities and how she connects with the Puppeteer, a woman who can cleave witches by cutting their threads and controlling them like puppets. So I hate picking favourites but…let’s just say I’m particularly fixed on Iseult’s journey.
Merik Nihar is the aforementioned prince of Nubrevna and an Airwitch with a temper to match Safiya’s. He is the captain of the Jana, who prefers sailing over diplomatic meetings. Nubrevna is a small country that was hit hard by the war, to the point where the land is still poisoned and unable to grow or sustain life, and then hit harder by the larger, stronger countries cutting it off from trade, to the point where the people are left starving. While is cutthroat sister, Vivia, and apparently his father the king seek to strengthen their military prowess to prepare for the revitalized war, Merik seeks a peaceful solution to his country’s turmoil by looking for trade routes wherever he can find them. This leads him to accepting a contract with Eron fon Hasstrel, Safiya’s uncle, to transport Safiya to Lejna in exchange for opening trade with the Hasstrel family. As per usual, I didn’t care much for his and Safiya’s romantic connection (very cliche, very boring) but I did end up caring about him as a character. I couldn’t imagine the stress he was under, trying to save his people while combating his family’s belief that piracy and military attacks were the way to go. His love and loyalty for his crew, that came about his feelings for Safiya, really cemented him as a strong leader.
While there are five recognized elements in the Witchlands, a sixth is also mentioned, but treated as a myth: Void, with the added myth of their being an Origin Well for this element. But Aeduan, the Bloodwitch (a specialized Voidwitch) and our main villain-who-isn’t-totally-a-villian, puts the myths to rest. Using his abilities to smell people’s blood and be able to track them, he tracks down Safiya, for the rewarded of bringing her back to the Emperor to be wed, and Iseult, as revenge for beating him up so badly (his bruised pride, essentially), across the land. I don’t really see him as the real villain of the series since he’s essentially hunting the girls down for money and because he was ordered to by his boss, not out of an ingrain malice, though he does enjoy hunting and killing and being feared as a demon. He’s an interesting parallel to Iseult, who is also treated as a demon for who she is. And what’s this? I actually support a romantic couple in a YA book? This is new territory for me!
Okay but for real, Iseult and Aeduan need to get on each other immediately.
That’s our four mains, but the secondary characters are just background noise, and I hope we get to see more of them later on in the series. Eron fon Hasstrel is Safiya’s uncle, a former well-renowned solider who has been pretending to be a drunk to hide his plans to save the Truce. He owns the Hasstrel land which allows him to form the contract with a desperate Merik to save Safiya. Mathew is one of the girls’ tutors, a Wordwitch with the ability to speak any language. His romantic partner (“Heartthread”), Habim, is another tutor, a man who used to work under Eron when they were still in the army. Together, the two tutors trained the women in the art of words and in combat, all while helping Eron in his plans. Kullen Ikray is a highly skilled Airwitch and Merik’s compassionate Threadbrother and first mate who helps ground Merik and keep him focused on his tasks. Leopold fon Cartorra is the prince of Cartorra and a childhood friend of Safiya’s who is also in on Eron’s plans, which he keeps secret until the very end when he reveals himself to Aeduan.
The one thing that was really missing from the story was a main villain but it looks like we get a hint of who he is closer to the end, as well as the Puppeteer, who works for him and who somehow managed to psychologically connect with Iseult permanently. In a main villain’s place, we have the Empresses and Emperors of the lands, all eager to start their war up again and destroy each other for power. Then there is Corlant, a vile Cursewitch who has taken control of Iseult’s tribe, overthrowing her mother and sucking the life out of the threads around him, and who has sown discord through the village, convincing everyone that Iseult is the Puppeteer, a woman who can control the threads of the Cleaved, and causing her to be chased out for good. I really want to see him fall more than anything.
There was a map at the beginning of this book so I definitely strapped in to prepare myself for the journey ahead.
I think that Dennard writes really well, especially when it comes to her fight scenes. Her world-building is extraordinary and the lands she describe are diverse and rich. The one thing that annoyed me, though, was that she dropped words she’d created without explanation, and it’s clear she had planned out her world with great detail and care, but there’s nothing more jarring than running into a word you’ve never seen before, made up just for that story, and having no glossary or reference point to make sense of it. It slowed me down considerably.
Overall, I’m quite happy with the book! The writing was great, the pacing never stalled, the plot moved smoothly and the characters were interesting. The second in the series is coming out soon, and I just can’t wait to get my hands on it! From the title, it looks like it’s going to be focused on Merik which actually interests me.
My Rating: 4/5