“This book will delight you.” Robin Hobb
“Richly drawn characters, and dazzling intrigue… Do not miss out!” Sarah J Maas
“Magic, romance, and non stop action that will leave you breathless.” Maria V Snyder
To be honest I had high expectations for this book, and I am aware that they were completely unfair, as I went in comparing it to Sarah J Maas’ novels. This is mainly because I know that Maas and Dennard are friends, and also because Maas’ novels are the best fantasy novels – the best YA novels, even – that I have read in a long time. Unfortunately, Truthwitch did not reach these expectations, or, for me, hold to any of the promises advertised on the cover. While I was deeply interested in the premise – I have a soft spot for witches – I felt that it wasn’t executed as well as it could be.
While the world that Dennard has created seems to be diverse, thought-out and interesting, the pacing in which Dennard chose to reveal information about this world and the characters, I found to be very unbalanced. I can see that she was aiming for intrigue in order to draw in the reader, to keep us turning the pages desperate for the answers, but I ended up finishing the novel feeling as if most of my questions had not been answered, and this left me more frustrated than charmed. The pacing of the plot was also odd, as while there was constant action in the story, I still felt as if nothing had really happened until a good quarter or so through the book.
I also found the characters, while they tried to be strong, active female protagonists, rather flat. Though I liked Safi and Merik’s personalities, and adored the friendships represented by Safi and Iseult, and Merik and Kullen, I still felt disconnected from them, and the other characters and their stories; particularly Iseult’s. For some reason I just didn’t care. This left me even more frustrated, as I could see the potential for fantastic, dynamic and interesting characters that leap off the page and grab you, if only they were fleshed out a little more.
The prose itself, sentence structure, writing style, and dialogue I liked and found to be a much better standard than many YA novels.
Overall, I while I enjoyed parts of this book, I found it to be frustrating and boring at times. However, this wasn’t enough to put my off the series totally, and I have purchased the sequel. Here’s hoping the world and character’s flesh out more as the Witchlands series continues.
(Continue reading for a more in depth review, but beware spoilers.)
World building is probably the most important aspect of any novel, but within the genre of fantasy, particularly high fantasy, it becomes even more crucial. As a writer you need to be able to find the balance between providing the basic laws of the world you have created, while either not bombarding the reader with excessive exposition or, on the other end of the scale, leaving too much of the world shrouded in mystery and just leaving your reader lost, wondering if they’ve missed something while the plot steamrolls them.
Dennard, I feel, did not find this balance. I found that she withheld the information I felt important to understanding the world and the plight of the characters, all for the sake of “intrigue”. Personally, I found the first few chapters of the novel very disorientating as we are dropped immediately into action with little explanation as to what was going on. I felt perhaps the novel would have started better with the poker game that Safi mentions, in order to establish the “norm” before plunging straight into inciting incident, an attempted robbery? Is that what was going on? I mean all of a sudden Safi is saying all their hopes and dreams are dashed and they’re both having to leave the city for what they’ve done, and I was just there trying to knit the pieces together as they went. The whole start of the novel for me was just a big blur.
Moving on from that there was a lot of background information that was withheld throughout the novel, and while I think it was done for mystery, I feel that this information was too important to just mention in passing and never address. While intriguing, the world Dennard has built is extremely large, and this left me lost as I was trying to keep up with the names of countries, all the different rulers, and just the huge number of names mentioned, names of people who weren’t even introduced as characters yet. And the map in the front wasn’t much help.
Besides the geographical, the fantasy elements of this world are teased, rather than explained. The magical wells and the cahr awen are mentioned consistently throughout the novel, so they’re obviously very important. The monks as well, have this shroud of mystery, and I’m sure this is linked, as we are never really told who they are or what they do. They’re called monks, so I assume they have some kind of religious or spiritual belief that goes along with being a warrior, that will become significant when more information on the cahr awen is revealed. I’m guessing all this will be addressed in the sequels, but the fact that these concepts were continuously mentioned, without being elaborated upon, just made me feel like Dennard was dancing around the information and it was just frustrating.
Another magical concept that was left unexplained was that of cleaving. It happened a few times in the novel, and yet I still don’t understand what it is. Is it a magical sickness? Like a plague you can catch? Or is it just what happens when someone with magic overworks themselves? And if its the latter, how would this trigger those around them? I just really wanted some clarification on this.
Most significantly, as it seems to be the main conflict that will dominate the series, is the great war that is mentioned. I really wanted more information on this. No where is the conflict truly explained. I wanted a more in depth understanding of the conflict, and of the consequences on it. I wanted the plight the war caused to be more obvious. They kept talking of the importance of the treaty continuing, but didn’t tell us why we should really care if it didn’t. The only problems it seems to have caused is to Nubrevna, but what about all the other countries? Perhaps this will be addressed in the next novel, but seeing as the treaty seemed to be such an important part of the first novel, I don’t understand why the explanation was brushed over.
Finally, I also really didn’t get the significance of a “truthwitch”. Why its such a big deal that Safi is one? Why everyone is falling over themselves to get to her? It’s justified in the novel by saying that she would be a powerful tool in a political climate, but her power is almost irrelevant to the plot, not aiding her or the story in any way (besides it being super desirable) and it even fails her multiple times. There is no moment in the novel where I thought, “Wow, this girl’s magic is powerful, I totally get the threat she poses”. It even suffers from the problem that if someone believes what they say, even if it is incorrect or misinformed, Safi will register it as truth. That’s a pretty big, and obvious, loophole that would be easy to take advantage of. So, for a concept that the whole book was named after, I didn’t see the significance.
Generally, I found it hard to become invested in these characters and their stories. It was half way through and I still didn’t care, and could have easily put the book down and never picked it up again.
Safi was a character that I did enjoy, she is fiery, loyal and passionate, she fights for what she wants and what she believes in. But despite this, there was still something preventing me from fully investing in her and her story, and I think it comes back to world building. We never see Safi in her life before the inciting incident that the novel starts on, so we have no sense of what “normal” was for her, and no investment in the future she is working for. And neither did I grasp her desire for freedom, when we had never seen her in the context of feeling the pressure of her role as nobility. The only time we see her as a Domna is when she’s (spoiler alert) all of a sudden engaged and then being part of a staged kidnapping to “free” her. I also didn’t understand the sudden shift in her character and goals, one minute its all about being free, and the next she’s suddenly invested in some foreign prince’s (who she has known for a day or two) country and people. I understand she felt bad for risking the deal between him and her uncle, but for her to decide to drop everything she wanted and worked for to help him made absolutely no sense to me. Was it just because she found him attractive? (I suspect they will be Heart-Threads) and is that enough to sacrifice the one thing that matters most to you, after just one day? I just wasn’t buying it.
Iseult was even more difficult for me to grasp, as I found her character a lot flatter. She seemed to have a lack of personality, and the only intensity she seemed to feel was in her friendship for Safi. This lack of animation is explained in the story as being a part of her “witchery”, apparently its a characteristic of a Threadwitch to be apathetic and distanced from their emotions, though part of this character’s conflict is the fact that she is not apathetic enough, and this lead to her being a bad Threadwitch. I didn’t find her to be very emotional at all, and this made it very hard for me to connect to her character. But the biggest disappointment for me in regards to Iseult was that even though she is from an interesting and diverse culture, this culture is brushed over in the novel. Even after being introduced to her family and her settlement, I felt like I knew nothing about this culture except that they were supposed to be Nomadic. The racism she experienced as a result of being Nomatsi also frustrated me because, firstly, was it really necessary to include racism? In a fantasy setting, why can’t part of the fantasy be a world where racism does not exist? Secondly, the prejudice against Nomatsi people is not explained at all. She experiences racial slurs, and disgust when she is recognised as “other”, but we are never told what it is about the Nomatsi that is so “repulsive”. Is it because they are nomadic? Do they have different religious beliefs? If you are going to include this kind of adversity to your character, it needs to be told properly. Also, the racial issue didn’t seem to aid the plot at all, it just seemed to be a way to add “dimension” to the character, but I can think of many different ways to make your character rich, diverse and interesting without making her a target of racism.
I did really enjoy the bond between Safi and Iseult. A strong female/female friendship is so hard to come by in YA with so many focused on the dreaded feminine rivalry trope, and their friendship was so purely built on mutual trust and respect. Though I would have liked an elaboration on this whole concept of Thread-Family. Is it just something that people say to each other, or do thread families truly have magical bonds holding them together?
Merik was an enjoyable character. I felt like I understood his motivations and where he was coming from, and could empathise. This, I think is because his character and story was introduced before his character’s inciting incident, so it gave us time to get to know him and become invested in his story. He and his sister’s relationship gave me Zuko/Azula vibes, and I enjoyed this back and forth, even though I was kind of annoyed at the demonisation of a strong female character.
Aeduan was also irritatingly shrouded in mystery. After a whole novel including his perspective we still knew nothing about him except that he is Nomatsi, that his father is a King of one of the many countries that I can’t keep straight (Arithuania), and that he’s probably going to be Iseult’s Heart-Thread. His character really didn’t get interesting till right at the end, and after being a main character for the whole novel, this doesn’t seem like a good thing.
Dennard’s prose is enjoyable and easy to read compared to the prose of many books in the genre (YA seems to be doomed to bad writing and clichés). The dialogue in particular stood out, as it seemed natural, rather than stilted and awkward like a lot of other YA, and novels in general.
Despite what it may seem, after writing almost two thousand words talking about what was wrong with it, I didn’t hate or dislike Truthwitch. There were just so many marks where it fell a little short for me, when I desperately wanted to fall in love with it, but I think the world has potential and I hope I’m not disappointed.
Disclaimer: This review is in no way written in malice or intending to offend, it is purely my opinion, and if it differs from yours that does not mean that your own opinion or enjoyment is invalid.