Review of Windwitch by Susan Dennard
by Susan Dennard
As with Truthwitch, Windwitch is a great palate cleanser after some less-than-inspiring reads. It has been a rough couple of weeks, reading-wise, and I’m trying to get back on top of my reading and reviewing game. So I grabbed this from near-the-top of the reading pile where it landed after buying it when it was published. Windwitch is not quite as exciting as the first book—it seems to lack a unifying, urgent central plot—and your enjoyment will depend a lot on how you feel about the characters Susan Dennard has paired up for this instalment.
Spoilers for Truthwitch but not this book.
Windwitch picks up very shortly after the first book ends. Safi is in thrall to Empress Vaness of Marstok; Iseult is attempting to cross the continent in order to find her; and Merik is screwing things up, as usual. This time, Merik is presumed dead. If only he had stayed that way. (Can you tell I don’t much like Merik?) Oh, and that Bloodwitch guy is back trying to get you to feel sympathy for him (or Aeduan?).
The main takeaway of this book’s lot is that no character has any idea WTF is going on. If this were Twitter, there would be a lot of confused @ing while everyone argues over which hashtags to use. Unfortunately, Dennard doesn’t quite Storify it all for us.
One interesting dimension is the addition of Vivia, Merik’s sister, to the viewpoint characters. Vivia in the first book was an unseen, distant antagonist-by-proxy. We pretty much had to take Merik’s word for it that she was bad news, and now we can see how his perception distorted her. Yes, Vivia is not all sunshine and puppy dogs and rainbows. But I like her character; I like her a lot better than Merik. I trust that she is trying to find the best way to help her people, just like Merik is, even if she doesn’t always trust other people enough to take them into her confidence. If you hand her a problem, Vivia is the kind of person who is going to seem like she isn’t working on the problem, then come to you long after you think she has forgotten about it and present a fait accompli solution. If you hand Merik a problem, he is going to look at it for a while and then try to fix it with sailing or something. (I’m being a little too harsh on Merik, I admit. In attempting to solve his own murder he does some good investigative legwork.)
I’m struggling, however, to come up with anything about Windwitch that really excites me. Truthwitch excited me because Safi and Iseult had such a great, platonic chemistry going on. Separating them was a bold move, one that I think paid off in that book—but in this book, it just leads to the two subpar-by-comparison pairings of Safi/Vaness and Iseult/Aeduan. Safi and Vaness are fun for about three seconds—it’s nice that Safi is self-aware about how annoying she is being, that she is using that to be deliberately obstructive of either Vaness or, later, their captors. Iseult is a little better; I still don’t know why the second book wasn’t Threadwitch and didn’t follow Iseult more closely, because hers continues to be, in my opinion, the most interesting arc of this entire series.
Iseult is going through some hard times. Her fleeting, unwilling contacts with Esme and her internal conflict over the possibility of being a Cleaving, puppeteering Weaverwitch are very compelling. She is so wrapped up in trying to get to Safi, trying to help Safi, that she is trying to shove these personal concerns on to the backburner—and they won’t let her. In this respect, Dennard pairing Iseult with Aeduan works pretty well. They already have a history together, what with her saving his life, and their powers are relatively incompatible—her cloak protects her from him smelling her blood, and he has no Threads for her to manipulate. It’s fun to see them make a deal to grudgingly work together—but the end result is as messy and inconclusive as the rest of this book.
My refrain in my head throughout reading Windwitch was that it fell into the fantasy novel trap of confusing travel with plot.
Seriously, so much of this story is just characters travelling across the Witchlands, whether of their own free will or at the behest of another set of characters. And then if something happens, they get to backtrack a little! Oh, and there is something nefarious happening with pirates? But it’s largely a background element that only gets shoved into the foreground at the end to provide a kind of tacked-on climax with action sequences that are really confusing if you don’t visualize when you read (hello).
Truthwitch has a forward momentum prompted by Safi’s urgent need to escape her arranged marriage and a Bloodwitch on her tail. Windwitch has little of that. The essential outcomes of this story, which I won’t spoil, feel small enough that they could have been compressed into the first act of the book, and then whatever is in book 3 could have been the rest of this book. Everything else just feels like … well, I don’t want to drop an F-bomb on you, but here I go.
Much of this book feels like filler.
There, I said it. I might as well toss in the dreaded “second-book syndrome” in for good measure.
Really, trying hard not to hate on Windwitch because the setting and characters are still pretty great. It’s just that the story in this one, especially compared to the first book, lacks a unity that I crave in these kinds of epic adventures. For a book ostensibly about Merik, if the title is anything to go by, its focus is scattershot at best. And unlike most books with multiple POVs, I had trouble understanding why we were following certain POVs and not others. While Dennard does her best to suggest underlying arcs that will hopefully come to more prominence over time (the Cahr Awen and the Origin Wells, obviously; Esme, etc.), the POV characters, with one or two exceptions, seem remarkably uninvolved in furthering these arcs.
I like this series and really respect what Dennard is trying to do—trying to do new things and not hitting the mark is always better than falling back on tried-and-true formulae. Nevertheless, Windwitch will go down as “uh, that middle book”—especially if Bloodwitch is a more worthy sequel, which I hope it will be.