Truthwitch was an essential palate cleanser. I needed something light, something that is not necessarily a romp but that would not allow me to get bogged down. And that’s what this book is. Susan Dennard’s Witchlands remind me of L.E. Modesitt, Jr.’s Recluce saga and others of its ilk; by transitivity, they remind me of my younger days when I could curl up with a thick fantasy novel while it rains outside and just read the afternoon away. In many ways this is your typical Medieval European Fantasy story that could have been written any time in the last thirty years—except that instead of your standard, brooding young-to-middle-aged man, it has two stellar young women as its protagonists.
Safiya, the eponymous Truthwitch, is nobility but not all that interested in being noble. Her Threadsister—read, sidekick—Iseult is a Threadwich, and together they have the fighting training to kick all kinds of ass. We see this from the start, which opens in media res with Safi and Iseult fighting back-to-back while, presumably, cool electronic music plays in the background as they take down tens of well-trained redshirts. It’s the kind of well-choreographed John Woo style action you’d happily watch in a movie, and Dennard has a talent for putting it on the page without making it too confusing, especially to readers like myself who have trouble visualizing scenes. Also, the fact that Safi and Iseult are nascent con artists certainly doesn’t hurt when it comes to endearing them to me. I love con artist characters.
The pacing of the book does not let up from that opening, and for the next three hundred pages our protagonists barely get time to breathe. Readers hoping for eye-blurring paragraphs of exposition will be disappointed, because Dennard often errs on the side of confusion for the sake of succinctness. Even with the handy map at the front of the book, I often found myself confused about which nation was which, who belonged or worked for which nation, and why I should care about these conflicts. Similarly, there are aspects of Truthwitch’s plot that are never well developed or dropped in out of left field—and not in a “ooh, what a delightful twist” sort of way. I’m thinking, namely, of Uncle Eron’s Xanatos gambit, or the identity of Aeduan’s father. In the case of the former, we never hear details about this plot to make us understand why Eron acts the way he does. In the case of the latter, the twist lacks much in the way of dramatic weight, because I neither know enough nor care enough about Aeduan’s father to be moved by the revelation.
Indeed, for all its impressive action sequences, Truthwitch has weird moments of telling when it could be showing. We’re told that Safi despises her uncle and really wants to escape from any association with him. But they are together so briefly on page we don’t really see this relationship. Same goes for Safi’s friendship with, say, Leopold. Minor characters to give us some sense of the main character’s background are great and all (I liked, for example, the way Dennard handles Iseult’s relationship with Gretchya and Alma), but when those characters stick around and figure in the larger plot, as Leopold does, I get the sense that I missed something.
Fortunately, Safi and Iseult’s friendship and the way this influences the plot makes up for a lot of these deficiencies. Safi is headstrong, impulsive, and needs Iseult to temper these qualities. In Safi, Iseult finds someone who supports her and stands with her against the discrimination she faces as a result of her ethnicity. Both are very strong characters, but their strengths work along complementary axes. As the title of the novel implies, Safi is the principal protagonist; for much of the novel, Iseult spends her time injured and in and out of consciousness. Nevertheless, I like how Dennard still develops Iseult as a character: we see tantalizing hints that her Threadwitch powers go deeper than they normally should. In fact, Iseult ends up in communication with a shady character, and this perhaps ends up endangering Safi and their other allies. So while Safi is facing external enemies, Iseult’s journal is slightly more personal and introspective.
I cannot stand the “romance” between Safi and Merik, if that’s what it is—belligerent sexual tension (TVTropes) is such a cliché, and Dennard brings nothing new to it here. I ship Safi and Iseult—platonically—instead. I will watch them stand back to back against haters and Bloodwitches and nincompoop Aetherwitches any day of the week!
Although Merik in general is not a great character for me, I have to concede one point: I did enjoy the shipboard scenes far more than I thought I would. Dennard doesn’t waste an opportunity to show us that Merik is, at heart, a sailor. He isn’t just some prince assigned command of a ship. He knows how sailing works; he knows the songs, the rhythm of the movement on the deck. When he issues orders and supervises movement, you really get the sense of the entire crew working as one to making the ship viable, and that’s not something I always feel when reading such scenes in other fantasy novels.
I’ll finish off with some remarks on the magic system in Witchlands. While the naming of the types of witches might be trite, I like the glimpses of codification Dennard provides in things like the tattoos on people’s hands to indicate their witchery and specializations, or the way Witchlands society has integrated certain magic into its practices, as is the case in the bewitched contracts. However, for such an intriguing system, I’d level the charge that it just isn’t used enough—at least, not in the case of Safiya! Being a Truthwitch is supposed to be a big deal, because she is so rare and valuable (or so we are told, again, rather than shown). Yet aside from an internal truth-o-meter pinging every time someone talks to her, we seldom see Safi actually exercise her truthiness powers in a meaningful or significant way. I think the most magic we see comes from Merik and Aeduan, neither of whom are the title characters of this book. And so that disappointed me a little.
You might wonder why, if I’m listing all these criticisms of Truthwitch, I’m claiming to have liked it so much. Because I did. Like it, that is. Indeed, I liked it so much I went out and bought Windwitch the day after finishing it (I thought I would need to pre-order Windwitch, but serendipity would have that it came out three days prior to me reading this one!). To be honest, the cover had a lot to do with that decision too. Normally I don’t remark much on the cover, good or bad—but isn’t this cover gorgeous? Scott Grimando depicts Safiya in an elegant power pose, with a great outfit that isn’t hypersexualized, cool swirly magic stuff around her, and I love the little detail of the sword crossing through the title like that. The Windwitch cover is just as nice, and I want to collect the whole series and have a matching set.
I guess I fall back on this idea that there is a big difference between a book’s quality and a reader’s enjoyment of that book. Truthwitch is a complex and messy book with so many moving parts that it’s fun to pick it apart on a structural level, just to see what makes it tick. Yet when you put those pieces back together and run the plot from start to finish, you end up with a story that, at least in my case, delivers exactly what is wanted: a fast-paced, high-stakes adventure with some great leads and action scenes. This is a summer blockbuster of fantasy novels: yeah, when you put the book down and look back on it, there are glaring problems—but in the moment of reading, there is nowhere else you would rather be and nothing else you could possibly need.