Review: ‘Truthwitch’ by Susan Dennard

28355848.jpgIn 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.

[Goodreads]

Book details

Genre: YA Fantasy

Series: The Witchlands, #1

Publisher: Tor

ISBN: 9781509825028

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Review

“It wasn’t freedom she wanted. It was belief in something—a prize big enough to run for and to fight for and to keep on reaching toward no matter what.”

 Susan Dennard’s fast-paced fantasy novel was one of the most highly-anticipated reads of 2016. To be fair, this was not unwarranted. With an intriguing plot promising not one but two kickass female leads, a stellar publicity team and of course her best friend, queen of YA fantasy Sarah J. Maas, rallying up support on social media, it’s no surprise that I couldn’t log on to Twitter without being bombarded by Truthwitch hype months before its release.

Fortunately for Dennard, this meant unparalleled success for her latest novel. Unfortunately, it also meant that Truthwitch would fall prey to every reader’s second-worst nightmare: overhype.

I’d lie and say I saw the hype train leaving the YA station and gave it a disinterested wave from the platform, but in all honesty I was nowhere near the station by the time Truthwitch was released. Thanks to endless uni assignments, I managed to miss the first wave of overwhelmingly positive reviews, and the inevitable second wave of frustrated complaints that it didn’t live up to its reputation as the best fantasy read of the century. By the time I finally got to reading it in early January, most people had already forgotten about it.

All that to say, even though my reading experience was largely unaffected by overhype, I was still disappointed.

Truthwitch just didn’t cut it for me. Maybe I’m just a fantasy snob, but I had various problems with the way Dennard seemed to overlook crucial elements like plot and world building in favour of action and lightning-fast pacing. I finished the book with no idea what Witchlands (what an original name for a land where witches live, right?) was supposed to look like. Contextually, I was told numerous times that there was a war brewing, yet the evidence supporting this didn’t really reflect in the landscape or social dynamics. The internal structuring of the kingdom (which is actually an empire, seeing as there was definitely an emperor in the mix) was hopelessly vague, as was any notion of politics. To make things worse, Dennard’s magic system was all over the place. Not only was there no indication of why there were witches running rampant, but there was also very little explanation as to how magic functioned. Safi’s magic, in particular, made absolutely no sense to me.

Truth is an objective concept. Can Safi sense if somebody’s lying, even if they think they’re telling the truth? Or does she just know everything? And is it only applicable to speech? Does she feel sick when she goes to watch a play, or reads a book, because what she’s being exposed to isn’t “truth”? What if she lies? Surely if truth is such an intrinsic part of her, she shouldn’t be such a great actress? Throw me a line here, Dennard.

In spite of my annoyance at the transparency of the Witchlands and the confusing rules governing its people, I did find myself really enjoying the characters. Well, most of them. Aeduan was a wonderfully complex villain, and his narration showcased Dennard’s talent for characterization beautifully. However, while Iseult was faced with both emotional and physical challenges that prompted a rather stunning character arc, Safi was far flatter in comparison. Her natural talent for almost everything made it difficult for me to sympathise with her. But to make up for that, Safi and Iseult’s bond was wonderfully refreshing, considering that supportive female relationships (both romantic and platonic) are still rare in fantasy novels. And their badassery in facing off adversaries almost distracted me from some of Safi’s Mary Sue-like qualities.

One last gripe, I promise. If there’s one thing readers hate more than anything, it’s insta-love. Newsflash, authors: there’s a big difference between immediate sexual attraction (forgivable) and love at first sight (clichéd). I’m a hopeless romantic. Give me a well-developed, gradual love subplot over this “romance in a can” crap, which always seems to begin with a passionate dance in a crowded ballroom that “melts away as the lovers get lost in each other’s eyes”. Excuse me while I go throw up.

This may seem like an overwhelmingly negative review, but despite all my critiques, Truthwitch was still a decent fantasy read. Dennard’s a great writer, and I loved the way she infused a rather intense story with subtle humour and unique characters. Also, props to her for joining the ranks of authors trying to de-stigmatise sex and swearing in YA. Somehow, I get the feeling she has far more on offer than Truthwitch suggested. I’d definitely keep an eye on her.

3 stars

Rating: 3/5

Recommended to: Fantasy readers looking for an entertaining read with ball gowns and badassery.

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The Last Word

Please tell me somebody else noticed that Aeduan is basically the exact same name as Aedion (from Throne of Glass). Like, did SJM and Sarah Dennard have a “let’s come up with fantasy names that are ridiculously difficult to pronounce” brainstorming session, and then fight over names beginning with A?

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