Today in YA: Review of Truthwitch by Susan Dennard
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The following review of Truth Witch (Tor Teen, January 5, 2016) by Susan Dennard is from Food, Fitness & Fiction contributing editor Amber Lee.
Truthwitch is the ambitious first novel of Susan Dennard’s newest series, with intricate world building and a wide cast of characters.
Here’s a description of Truthwitch from Amazon:
On a continent ruled by three empires, some are born with a “witchery,” a magical skill that sets them apart from others. In the Witchlands, there are almost as many types of magic as there are ways to get in trouble–as two desperate young women know all too well. Safiya is a Truthwitch, able to discern truth from lie. It’s a powerful magic that many would kill to have on their side, especially amongst the nobility to which Safi was born. So Safi must keep her gift hidden, lest she be used as a pawn in the struggle between empires. Iseult, a Threadwitch, can see the invisible ties that bind and entangle the lives around her–but she cannot see the bonds that touch her own heart. Her unlikely friendship with Safi has taken her from life as an outcast into one of of reckless adventure, where she is a cool, wary balance to Safi’s hotheaded impulsiveness. Safi and Iseult just want to be free to live their own lives, but war is coming to the Witchlands. With the help of the cunning Prince Merik (a Windwitch and ship’s captain) and the hindrance of a Bloodwitch bent on revenge, the friends must fight emperors, princes, and mercenaries alike, who will stop at nothing to get their hands on a Truthwitch.
Characterization is definitely Dennard’s strong suit. The strong friendship between Safi and Iseult was what drew me to read the novel while reading the synopsis. Their complete and automatic devotion to each other is a lovely emotional focal point as well as an effective plot device. Character juxtaposition is my favorite thing in the world and this duo was entirely based on it. Light and dark, fiery and sedate. They are perfectly mirrored, each the negative space of the other. Dennard’s best moments of elucidating this contrast are in the fight scenes, while her worst are giant blocks of exposition not backed by action.
The point in the novel where I decided that I was truly invested in the characters was during the second meeting with Safi and Merik. Their initial spark was a meet-cute classic argument under false pretenses, while the next time they meet they were in full royal regalia as a domna (a noble lady) and the prince of Nubrevna. Firstly, I get weak in the knees for fantasy ball scenes with all the dancing and fancy clothing and social facades involved. Second, Dennard’s indulgent description of that initial competitive chemistry between Safi and Merik was incendiary. Dennard is masterful at little moments of intimacy. I wish there were more of them. Safi and Merik’s relationship started out in a deliciously tropey way then was a bit muddled and not given enough time to simmer before the big kiss scene.
As a side note, I honestly did not care about Aeduan (and by extension his relationship with Iseult) but that is most likely just me being nit-picky because I got very irritated by his powers and the ridiculously specific descriptions of the scent of various people’s blood. Blood that smells like “clear lake water and frozen winters?” “The blacksmith’s anvil and gall ink?” It’s blood.
Though to be expected in a book called Truthwitch, the emotional transparency among the characters was one of my favorite aspects. Safi and Iseult are shown from their narration to be introspective and very aware of their faults, working on them for the benefit of each other and themselves. The main romance in the book is between Safi and Merik; they are also consistently honest and open about each other instead of playing guessing games with one another, though often their relationship was not quite clearly developed. Safi in particular, though hotheaded and impulsive, visibly works hard to become a better person for the people she cares about. However, the book was much too plot-heavy instead of giving the wide cast of characters the time and focus they needed for the reader to develop an interest in them. There are a number of side characters who were peripherally significant to the machinations of the plot who are mentioned much more than they appear, and even that is not quite enough for them to feel like real people.
In fact, much of the world Dennard created is notably lacking in opacity. The single biggest problem that permeates Truthwitch is not maintaining suspense of belief. Especially in a genre as rife with convention as high fantasy Young Adult Fiction, full immersion in the narrative is absolutely necessary. Dennard tries to get too much into too little. The world lacks cohesion. I still have no idea what an Aetherwitch is or what Threads really are. There is a lack of consistency in the way these ideas are presented, and they are not explained nearly enough to hold water as the essential parts of the narrative that they are. Safi’s ability to tell truth from lie is not displayed prominently enough to warrant the ends people go to in order to capture her. Aeduan’s powers as a Bloodwitch and the surrounding social stigma seem to fluctuate based on the necessities of the point at hand. The problem is not even that the ideas are brand new to the scene of YA Fiction in the vaguely European setting and the same elemental magical system seen over and over again except the aforementioned Aether and Void added to it. Much of the world building lacked a sense of weight and gravity, but the most jarring was the attempted translation of the notions of race when 99% of the people in the novel seemed to be white. Besides Ryber, a black background character, every single other person could easily be assumed to be white. Iseult was undeniably my favorite character, and a big part of it was because she was part of a marginalized race, implied to be East Asian. There is an obvious and unfortunate lack of cultural sensitivity in which Iseult and her tribe are easily read as white. A throwaway line about “slanted eyes” and racial slurs being thrown at her sporadically are not representation. It just aggravated me, the faint ties to Yellow Peril stereotypes imbued in Iseult’s upbringing. The concept of “othering” is completely flipped around and linguistic clues to their possible non-white-ness is wiped away; Iseult is an Irish name and di Midenzi is reminiscent of Italy. Also: the entire tribe is framed as faceless, primitive, and brainwashed. Only three people from it are ever humanized in any degree and after Iseult parts ways with the two others (her mother and an old friend), they are hardly ever mentioned again. A minor villain literally turns the hundreds of people in the settlement into a brainless mob that attacks Iseult, when their culture was already demonized by being depicted as heavily restricted and condemning to those who display emotion or try to leave.
Writing wise, some parts were often repetitive or could have been written with better syntax. However, there was often good dynamic syntax and punctuation to show voice. Subtle thread motifs were integrated into the narration as an extension of the world building. The pacing of the story was excellent and always made me want to keep going, never a significant lull in the action. Dennard is adept at emotional shifts and building tension, as well as having one event lead to the other seamlessly. Witty banter flows abundantly throughout the novel and it’s a delight to witness.
Despite the flaws, I am excited for Dennard’s next addition to the series– Windwitch. The primary stumbling block that made the novel difficult for me to initially get into was establishing all of the setting and political tensions. That is now over and done with, leaving a giant vacuum for Dennard to fill with everything she’s good at. I look forward to seeing more of the questions answered and characterization expanded on. Also, I expect at least part of the book will take place in the Marstoki Castle with Empress Vaness and I really want to see how Dennard writes politics from the inside as well as the impact of full-out war.
To learn more about Susan Dennard and her work, visit her website here.
Amber Lee is a high school junior from Irvine, California, and a staff writer for the Beckman Chronicle. She likes having too many hobbies at the same time (reading, writing, art, useless historical research, drums, guitar, webcomic-ing, boxing and Muay Thai, etc.) to actually really improve at any of them and critical consumption of mass media. You can follow her on Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram.
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