“A cake stuffed full of your favourite treats.” Robin Hobb
“Truthwitch is an instant new classic. It reminded me of why I started reading fantasy in the first place.” Sarah J. Maas
“Dynamic storytelling and a fully imagined magical world.” Publishers Weekly
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.
True to my word, I did pick up the second novel in the Witchlands series, and I was neither disappointed or surprised, just, initially, apathetic. It took me three attempts to read this book, as each time I picked it up I ended in a state of annoyance, frustration and confusion. The series seems to have the unique quality of the style being too fast paced, and yet, nothing seems to happen. Despite this, however, I did power through one Saturday afternoon, and once I hit half way I was finally absorbed by the narrative.
I still found the world building lacking, which of course is the main reason I struggled with my immersion into the story. As well of this, many of the questions I had by the end of Truthwitch were still not answered by the end of Windwitch. The concept of cleaving is still irritatingly vague, the Carawen monks and the cahr awen are still not fully explained, and the Nomatsi people are still left underdeveloped.
In regards to the characters, I experienced a complete one-eighty. In Truthwitch, I enjoyed Safi and Merik. In Windwitch, I could not stand them, and whenever in their perspective I ached to get through the segment and return to Iseult and Aeduan, the two characters that I previously found dull. The introduction of Vivia’s perspective (Merik’s sister), I very much enjoyed. She had an excellent character arc, which I found some of the other characters, mainly Safi, lacked. Additionally, like in Truthwitch, I found that Windwitch mentioned a lot of characters, ones not even part of the main narrative, that I was constantly confused as to what, and who, the main characters were talking about. The multiple point of view structure also left me wondering whose story this really is.
Again, the writing style and structure of the novel I had no problem with, except for the fact that it somehow lacks clarity. However, I did find the structure of the plot repetitive (for further explanation, head to the spoiler section of the review), and not very driven. This series is very much motivated by characterisation and not action or plot.
Overall, just like Truthwitch, I found Windwitch a slow narrative that held no interest until half way, when the plot and action started to kick into gear. Though the novel started out weak, for me it ended strong, mostly through my interest in the further development of Iseult and Aeduan, both as individuals, and as friends (and perhaps more?). So, I will be reading the next installment, but again I am left hoping that the next book holds the answers, the depth, that the current novels are missing.
(Continue reading for a more in depth review, but beware spoilers.)
As a writer, your biggest goal is clarity. At no point do you want your reader to be confused as to what is happening, unless the confusion is intentional and will be rectified later in the text. You don’t want your reader going backwards, blaming themselves and thinking they missed something (as I did), because it pulls them out of the illusion you are trying to create. And unfortunately, the Witchland series still struggles with this.
The beginning of the novel left me off kilter, and I had to read the first couple of chapters multiple times to fully cement what was going on, in exactly the same way I had to for Truthwitch. Perhaps the “before” segment that works as a prologue for the novel would have worked better integrated into the first chapter, narrated as a flashback. Starting the novel with this lack of clarity put the whole book on an unstable foundation, and it took me a good half way to find my legs, but I think part of this was me just deciding to roll with the punches and ignoring parts of the plot that left me confused.
As I mentioned earlier, all of the questions I’d had in regards to this series are still not answered, and even more are raised. The “cleaved” I now think of as zombies more than anything else, and the Carawen monks and the cahr awen are still shrouded in mystery, even though it is obviously going to be extremely significant in the plot development of this series. Similarly, the concept of the fury, and just the whole belief system within the world in general, is very vague, though these gods and beliefs are significant to the characters and their ideologies, and the foundation of the magic system. To me it just feels like, despite being two books in, the series is still trying to establish the world and introduce the characters – something that should be done by the end of the first book.
The war is again neglected in this novel, no further information given, and, really, no development of it through the book, though the Witchlands are supposed to be on the verge of the return of this great conflict. There was no urgency in regard to the brewing war, until the end of the book (everything in this series seems to happen near the end) in the Contested Lands where Iseult and Aeduan come across the Red Sails and Baedyed (two kinds of pirates, I think? Again, like in the first book, I found myself confused at the introduction of new nationalities and their significance). This lack of clarity and addressing of the most significant obstacle in this series, really effects how the plot is driven in this story, namely that there doesn’t seem to be one overarching narrative, because its development is neglected.
Moreover, with the return of the “Chiseled Cheater” as a central character, my belief that Truthwitch should have begun with the bet between Safi and Caden, a scene that acts as the inciting incident for the entire Witchlands series, was reaffirmed.
Oddly, I experienced a complete reversal in this book regarding the characters, losing interest, and even disliking, Safi and Merik, and instead impatient to return to Iseult and Aeduan, the two characters that I found the least engaging in Truthwitch.
As I mentioned in the overview, Dennard seems to be a very character driven writer, rather than plot driven, and so in this novel we did see quite a bit of character development. The only character who remained rather stagnant in my opinion is Safi.
My main problem with Safi throughout this series has been her resistance to step up, take responsibility and make a change. She has always had a very limited world view, her main goal being finding “freedom” with Iseult. While at the end of Truthwitch Safi did make the choice to sacrifice herself for the good of another country (the motives of this decision though still unclear to me), she still holds the same resistance to becoming involved in the global conflict in the sequel. And even at the end of this novel, when she comes to realise that she does have the power to make a difference, that she is important, and that she will embrace this future, it is still framed within her old mindset of, “oh, I’ll do it until I can get away and live my life in peace.” However, if she really is the cahr awen (as she obviously is) then perhaps this pro-activeness will further develop in her character. (P.s. please don’t let there be a Safi/Caden/Merik love triangle.)
Merik, the namesake of this novel, both bored and irritated me to no end. He was extremely arrogant, his mantra of “The holiest always have the furthest to fall” (p.15), acting as if he’s some kind of chosen one entitled to the crown, annoyed the hell out of me. It was your typical male entitlement as he kept going on about how he was the one who deserved the crown, despite having done nothing to earn it, while his sister had dedicated her whole life to becoming the best possible leader for her people. I was so relieved when he pulled himself together and realised he was no one and his sister deserved everything she had worked for. Also, the way he tried to erase Cam’s identity, constantly calling him “her/she”, when it was clear (at least to me) that Cam identified as male, made me angry.
Leading from this, I really wished that Cam’s character had been developed more, rather than this minor character that was often pushed to the side until he became relevant to the plot at the end (where he is mutilated by his own transphobic brother as punishment for leaving his cause), and whose main arc was the transphobia he experienced. The one dimensionality was disappointing. Hopefully it is rectified in the next book.
Vivia really intrigued me and I loved watching her develop through the novel. Reading as she struggles with the fear of her own mental illness, trying to maintain power in a man’s world, to gain respect in her own right as an intelligent and powerful Tidewitch, to deal with the grief of her mothers suicide, her father’s illness, and her estranged brother’s “death”, while also carrying the fate of her people on her shoulders, really resonated with me. A woman always has to work twice as hard to get the same respect as a man, and to see her battle this, to see her finding her true self instead of trying to mimic the “Nahir rage” was a beautiful development (though it was frustrating that she did have to overcome this inherent sexism at all). Also I found myself very much shipping her and Stix, and it was heartbreaking as Vivia struggled with her self-loathing, believing herself not worthy of love. I’m really looking forward to more of her in later installments.
Iseult and Aeduan captivated me in Windwitch. I’m not sure why, but I find the dynamic between them very immersive and was constantly wanting more. I was often annoyed when the perspective shifted, and would count the number of pages until their perspectives returned. They seem to be the first male/female relationship in this series where the man doesn’t underestimate woman and instead respects her as a warrior, even though he is stronger and faster due to his bloodmagic.
I think the main reason I found Iseult more interesting in this book is because she was not being constantly compared to Safi, we were seeing her as a warrior in her own right (like we saw Safi in Truthwitch), rather than Safi’s back up, or half of a whole. She also seemed to figure out how to stop comparing herself to Safi, wishing she was more like her threadsister, rather than embracing who she is. So, it was an awesome moment when she accepted her true magic, as a Weaverwitch rather than a Threadwitch, and learned to understand herself as an individual (though I do still think she has a way to go). I also think Iseult came across as a lot more active in this book, driven by a desire to be more than she is, she longs to be part of the cahr awen, rather than wanting to blend in as Safi does (a possible future hurdle in their friendship).
In regards to Aeduan, I think the reason I was more engaged in his character is because we got to see him interacting with others, rather than just his internal monologue, and we got to know more layers of his personality, a man who respects strength and determination, a man who is compassionate towards children. His backstory, however, has still been neglected. I’m excited to find out more about him and his true motivations and role in the upcoming war, his father, and to watch the development of the plot and his relationship with Iseult when his parentage is revealed and Aeduan’s loyalties are tested.
Throughout the novel, I did notice a few character inconsistencies, however. Namely, in the Hell-bards and the puppeteer Esme. In the first half of the novel the Hell-bards are unsympathetic and almost abusive in their carelessness in holding their prisoners. And then, at some point that I can not identify, they’re suddenly kind, compassionate, with a human element that we hadn’t seen before. I’m assuming more will be revealed in the next book, something to do with how they are controlled by their necklace/noose, that we will then be able to empathise with. But in Windwitch it was just confusing, seemingly coming from nowhere. I found something similar with the characterisation of Esme. She too started as this terrifying, manipulative presence, framed as evil, a master of death killing and violating people’s bodies, but then all of a sudden she is presented as kind, as instructive, as caring about Iseult’s safety, and presented as almost childlike: misunderstood and alone. Again, a shift that seemed to come from nowhere.
Moreover, my biggest question in regards to Dennard’s characterisation throughout the Witchlands series, is the ownership of the narrative. In naming the sequel Windwitch, one assumes that the protagonist of this story is Merik, rather than Safi as it was in Truthwitch. However, the structure of the novel gives equal space to each of the main character’s perspectives, and so this left me wondering, who’s story is this? Does the Witchlands series have one hero, or multiple? Who’s arc is central to the narrative? An example, in order to clarify my point, is the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J Maas. Here we also deal with multiple point’s of view, however, it is still clear that the story is predominately Celaena/Aelin’s. The Witchlands series does not have this central character, which makes it hard for the reader to become fully invested, because we’re not sure who we are rooting for, with so many sub-plots running simultaneously, and so we have no idea of knowing where the story is going, what the drive and resolution of the plot is supposed to be.
The way Dennard navigates between point of view is skillfully done. Each character’s voice is distinct enough that I don’t get confused when we shift perspective. She also does it at just the right point, managing to keep you intrigued and frustrated at the interruption with every shift, driving the reader through the narrative, forcing us to keep reading to find out what happens next in each subplot (though I was constantly disinterested by Merik).
I did notice, however, that the structure of the plot within Windwitch was repetitive. Both Truthwitch and Windwitch were (personally) disinteresting until half way, and the climax of both novels took place on the sea, a navel attack on a port. I’m not sure if this parallel in the ending of the novel was done on purpose, but I suspect it might have been with the reveal of the weird shadow demon actually being Kullen controlled by the puppeteer (and that he and Merik are both dead but not… what?), and therefore resonating with Kullen’s supposed death at sea while trying to save the Nubrevnian port in Lejna.
In conclusion, though it was a slow start, I did enjoy reading Windwitch, and do look forward to the next book in the series. It has often been my experience as a reader, that a writer only gets better with each book written, and I hope this is true of Dennard.