Review: Truthwitch (Witchlands #1) by Susan Dennard

Few things appeal to me more than books about witches and books about relationships between women. I don’t care if the witch is becoming the new vampire in fantasy and urban fantasy. I will take a good book about lady witches supporting each other over an interesting setting with girlhate any day of the week.

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In the Witchlands, some people are born with a magical talent–a witchery–that sets them apart from from others. Safiya is a Truthwitch, able to discern truth from lies, while her friend Iseult is a Threadwitch, able to see the invisible threads that bind people together, though she is unable to see the threads that bind her heart. The two make an unlikely pair, Safiya is reckless, whereas Iseult is a careful planner. Unfortunately, their desire to live their own lives free from the influence of others proves difficult to obtain when they are caught up in political maneuvering between empires, and with a formidable Bloodwitch on their tails, Safi and Iseult will need the help of Prince Merik–a Windwitch desperately trying to help his impoverished nation–if they mean to survive long enough to attain true freedom.

The main characters, Safiya and Iseult, are the stars of the show. Safi is hotheaded, very much about doing. Iseult is the planner, the thinker, brains and brawn. In some stories, the secondary characters steal the show. In this book, the relationship between the two women takes center stage. I love them. There are also some great secondary characters: Aeduan, the Bloodwitch hunting Safi and Iseult for his patron, and Evrane, a Monk with a calming presence, especially when compared to her nephew, Prince Merik, who has quite the explosive temper. Some characters have smaller roles in the book, but manage to leave an impression on the reader, like Vaness, Empress of Marstok, or Mathew and Habim, the girls’ mentors, with some exceptions, I didn’t find the characters unlikable at all.

I love the idea of “thread-family” which is very much a family of choice rather than blood. Thread-brothers and thread-sisters share a close bond, one which often takes priority over, say, romantic bonds. It’s refreshing to see this sort of story where friendship is treated as just as important, if not more important, than romance.

I also enjoyed the action scenes. The book begins with a highway robbery gone wrong and everything just gets worse for our two protagonists from there. At times it’s difficult for me to see the action scenes in my head, but the scenes in this book played out like a big budget summer blockbuster in my head. This is one book I’d love to see adapted to the big screen.

One criticism I’ve heard about this novel is that there’s no worldbuilding. I disagree, to a point. There’s an elemental magic system, various empires and nations all trying to out-politic each other, and some hints at different pantheons and religious beliefs. The problem is that it’s not really expanded upon. Whereas some books will spend paragraphs telling you about how magic X works, Truthwitch takes a more, I guess you could say, minimalist approach. There’s nothing wrong with that but there were times that I wished the author had elaborated more on certain points.

If I had to name one thing I didn’t like about this book, I think I could sum it up in one word: Merik. Merik is the Prince of the impoverished nation of Nubrevna, desperate to forge a trade agreement or two to keep his country from being set upon by its neighbours, he’s also Safi’s Obvious Love Interest. Initially, I liked their playful bantering back and forth, that is, until he puts Safi and his aunt in leg irons on a ship for an entire day because he needs to maintain the loyalty of his crew. It was at this point that I completely lost interest in this character.

Another issue I had with the book is despite the emphasis on the friendship between Safi and Iseult they spend a fair chunk of the book separated until everything goes to shit. While we do get a glimpse of Iseult’s life before Safi and I understand why they separated, both characters are at their best when they are together, and it was these chapters in particular that I felt were the slowest parts of the book.

In terms of diversity, Iseult is described as having “slanted” eyes and her culture is basically (stereotypically) Romani in all but name (she is even referred to with the fantastic slur “‘Matsi”). There’s a minor black character, Ryber, and the powerful Empress of Marstok is described as having “bronze” skin. Safi herself is described as “tan”. In fact, Iseult, with her pale skin, is seen as unusual, although I should mention that the nation where they live is based on Venice, so it’s one of those ambiguous “are they tan white people or people of colour?” situations. In addition, Vaness, though powerful, is still a minor antagonist. In terms of LGBT representation, Matthew and Habim, Safi and Iseult’s mentors, are described as “heart-threads” which, if Ryber and Kullen are any indication, means that they are at the very least romantically involved, if not sexually. Overall, I’d say Truthwitch could use some work on the diversity front. It’s disappointing that there’s a main character of colour (and possibly two, depending on how you interpret Safi’s skin colour) whose family is depicted in such a stereotypical way.

Overall though? I loved Truthwitch despite its missteps. I loved the themes of friendship and found family. The action scenes were some of the most vivid I’ve read in a book, and most of the characters were interesting. I can’t wait to read Windwitch!

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