Quick Review: TRUTHWITCH by Susan Dennard (Tor)

DennardS-TruthwitchUKFirst in a new coming-of-age fantasy series

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.

I have very mixed feelings about this novel. There’s plenty in it that is interesting and shows great potential, but at the same time it is a novel of almosts. If you are a fan of fast-paced fantasy, with a globe-trotting and conspiracy-laden plot, and also coming-of-age tales, then you’ll probably find something to like here. However, for me, the execution was flawed, and I struggled to fully engage with the story or become invested in the characters’ fates.

What do I mean by “a novel of almosts”? Well, on pretty much every criteria I use to judge a book, Truthwitch only came close to meeting what I want: The plot was almost engaging. The characters were almost well-rounded. The narrative was almost smooth. The magic system was almost complete. (I’ll get into these in a moment.) Dennard’s prose is very good — I never spotted any issues with the way she writes. Indeed, there are quite a few scenes that were pretty interesting. However, every time there was a scene that brought me close to getting sucked into the story (usually those scenes featuring Aeduan, the villain), I was pretty soon knocked back out of it.

Neither Safi nor Iseult felt particularly compelling — for the most part, they were predictable. There were a few moments when you really felt they were best friends (or “threadsisters” in the novel’s vernacular), but these were fewer and further between than one would expect given the premise of the story and their supposed relationship. Most other times, we knew they were so close emotionally because we were told they are. This, really, is one of my main issues with the novel — too often, it felt like we were being told what to see or think, as opposed to being shown, and this was true for character relationships, and some Important Moments in the plot.

Another strange development was the pair’s actions as bandits: at the beginning of the novel, they are setting up an ambush. That scene ends, and everything changes and that aspect of their characters basically disappears completely. I was originally put in mind of Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria Chronicles and Francis Knight’s Duellist novels when I started (also in terms of prose-style), and this is what piqued my interest to keep reading. However, when I next thought about it, I realized that was a mere fleeting element.

Aeduan, the aforementioned villain, was the only character who really grabbed my attention — he seemed genuinely twisted and evil, something we could see on the page in his actions, as opposed to most other characters whose personalities are explained and told to us. Merik, an airwitch, was interesting to start with, but devolved into a rather bland, cliche unrequited/forbidden love-interest for Safi. (Whenever there was “tension” between them, I just mentally shrugged. Or yawned.) Most of the characters, therefore, felt almost interesting and fully-developed — but not enough to ever make me fully committed or invested in them.

DennardS-TruthwitchUSThere is a lot of magic in the novel, which always has the potential to be interesting — and it is in this novel. There are multiple types of witch, specializing in a whole host of areas, elements, skills, and so forth. There are some interesting ideas and creations, drawing from popular fantastical ideas, but with original twists to make them distinct and interesting.

What I thought was strange, though, was that every character’s magic features very prominently in pretty much every interaction they have, except for the two main protagonists’. I still don’t really see what Iseult’s Threadwitchery actually does or what the power means. Not once was I made to think, “Oh, that’s pretty cool.” She’s basically an empath. Safi’s Truthwitchery doesn’t come into play as much as one might expect from someone who is effectively a walking lie-detector. That they were given pretty passive-seeming powers was an interesting choice, however, and certainly made Truthwitch stand out for not giving the heroines flashy, bombastic and obvious super-powers. I’m hoping that their powers will develop and expand in the next novel in the series.

As the first part of a series, I felt I was only just getting my head around the factions and nature of the world — but even then, only a bit. I was nowhere near as invested in anyone’s fates as I’d hoped to be. There are mentions of prophecies, Larger Events Going On, and so forth, but none of it felt especially enticing. There are a lot of moving parts, which is fine, but none of them felt as fully-fleshed out as they perhaps could (or should) have been. On the whole, the world felt rather underdeveloped, incomplete. There were also scenes and diversions that felt strange and plonked into the narrative as, perhaps, a way to throw confusion into the otherwise straight-forward storyline. Red herrings that neither offered intrigue nor excitement. Just confusion and raised eyebrow.

Truthwitch hasn’t left me desperate to read the follow-up. Does the series have potential? I think so, yes. I think Dennard’s writing is solid enough to take many readers through this novel and on to the next (whenever it comes out). But for me the narrative just wasn’t as smooth or gripping as I would have liked, and the jerkiness knocked me out of the story on multiple occasions. The aforementioned issues I had with the characters also didn’t allow me to overlook the issues with the narrative flow, as it has in some other novels. Ultimately, I was just not swept up by the story. Maybe the sequel will solve these issues. I hope it does.

*

Truthwitch, the first in the Witchlands series, is published in mid-January 2016 in the UK by Tor Books, and in the US by Tor Teen.

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