The Story: [From GoodReads]:
In 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.
My Take: I tend to be cautious when delving into popular or highly anticipated books as, many times, they tend to not quite live up to the hype for me. Truthwitch happened to be one of these hyped books in early 2016, so for that alone I wasn’t eager to check it out. (Call me skittish!) But thanks to all of the consistently glowing reviews, I decided to give it a try.
For starters, the world Dennard has created here is simply massive, ranging from seacoast ports, to raging oceans, to gorgeous islands. Everything comes alive in stunning detail: you can see and hear the packed streets of a city, hear the waves and feel the salty air of the ocean, and almost inhale the verdant lushness of an island kingdom. Thankfully, all of these sensory elements, while crisp and clear, avoid becoming purple prose. Likewise, this is a fantasy realm that has a lot of working parts in terms of its politics and magic system, but the story doesn’t take breaks to deliver one infodump after another to explain how everything works. Instead, this novel follows the “show don’t tell” principle. By way of example, rather than explain the various witcheries, we see them in action so we can figure out how they work through inference. A Windwitch commands air and breath, a Threadwitch sees magical ties or “threads,” a Truthwitch detects truth from lies, and so on. Thus, rather than simply tell the reader through dry exposition about these things, the story shows us, which works to maintain a steady pace as the story never feels like it takes a break in the action just to sit down and explain matters.
Story-wise, the plot focuses on two witch pairings, Safi and Iseult, and Merick and Kullen. Safi and Iseult are Threadsisters and are about as close to having a sisterly bond as two friends can get. They always have each other’s back and their love resides strictly in the sister/friend arena. (These days it’s hard to find stories with close female-female or male-male pairings that don’t steer the character dynamics into same-sex attraction territory, which is annoying, at least to me, as women and men can have close relationships with members of the same sex that are based on friendship and nothing more.) In the same way, Merick and Kullen are Threadbrothers and, much like Safi and Iseult, have a tight bond as well. I thought it was a smart idea to show both sides of the witchery coin, divided between a female perspective and a male perspective as this presents a more balanced view of the story and its world as male and female witches view and engage their world and others in different ways. The story itself goes back and forth between these two pairings yet never feels bogged down. Likewise, the narrative is evenly paced so chapters are shared among the main characters and the chief villain so no one character (or set of characters) gets more attention than another.
The dynamics between characters become the highlight of the novel. Safi and Iseult start out as petty criminals in order to survive yet eventually become targets for far greater reasons than simply being runaway thieves. As it turns out, Safi, a Truthwitch, is in high demand for her skills, and Iseult, a Threadwitch, has abilities even she dares not explore for the time being. Both girls go on the run together and are brought aboard a ship where Merick is the captain. Yet there is more to Merick than meets the eye. Together, they brave dangers at sea to reach to what is supposed to be a safe haven yet, once again, nothing is as it seems. If this plot summary sounds a bit vague, that’s because I’m keeping it that way on purpose. As stated, there are a lot of working parts to this story and it’s worth not being spoiled for.
Much to my surprise, even though the backbone of this story is a power play plot, it wasn’t all insipid politics. Part of what helps is the story’s pacing, which knows when to incorporate action scenes to balance out moments of quieter (by comparison) character interaction and political scheming. I think my biggest mental hurdle in initially wanting to read this book was the fear that it was going to be 90% court intrigue and 10% action, character development, and world-building. But I’m glad I was proven wrong. Yes, much of the tension is based on the ramifications of a trade agreement but that doesn’t become the central focus. Instead, the novel treats us to a unique brand of magic and compelling characters, so it’s anything but dull.
I will say that, even though this book physically isn’t long, it was a slow read for me. Not because the plot is slow to get interested in; instead, as this book relies heavily on showing its world-building elements rather than telling about them, I took my time to absorb every detail so I wouldn’t miss anything. In truth, this is a book to savor rather than speed-read.
If I had any mixed feelings, it would be that I’m a little stumped as to why this is marketed as a teen read. Not that the novel is inappropriate for teens, but because the lead characters didn’t strike me as teenagers. I mentally envisioned Safi, Inseult, Merick, and Kullen as young adults in their early to mid-20s, not their teen years. This is due in part that they don’t act juvenile, which is a good thing. All four of these characters are smart, resourceful, and mature on a level I’ve not yet encountered in teen YA characters before (The Hunger Games notwithstanding). I was actually surprised to see that this book was published by TOR’s teen line as this didn’t read like any YA fantasy book I’ve perused in the past. But that’s a good thing as it makes it a good crossover read, meaning teens might enjoy this as a significant step up from the usual fluffy YA stories, and adults will enjoy it as a fun fantasy romp filled with plenty of action and adventure.
Language – There are some mild profanities scattered throughout that chiefly fall into the PG range (with the exception of the sh– word, which is chiefly used in reference to bird droppings as opposed to actual profanity).
Violence – There are plenty of fight scenes involving both weapons and magic though most of it avoids becoming gory. However, it’s worth noting that there are beings called “cleaved” witches who, essentially, turn into zombie-like creatures and don’t die easily; so it takes quite a bit of hacking and slicing to subdue them. Likewise, one scene has some of the characters combating a vicious sea monster, which is anything but bloodless but still avoids unnecessary gore.
Sexual Content – For the most part there is no sexual content save for a single scene near the book’s latter chapters where two characters kiss, fondle each other while clothed, and come close to having sex but are interrupted. While the scene isn’t graphic, as it relies on the elements to symbolize how characters are feeling, it isn’t exactly veiled, especially when one character tries to lift another character’s skirt, albeit to no avail and the scene ends right there.
Overall, Truthwitch is a promising start to a new fantasy series that, as long as subsequent books maintain this novel’s high bar, I’ll certainly be investing interest in it. While the novel seems to read longer than its physical size, the journey is worth it as we’re introduced to a memorable cast, pulse-thrilling action, and a fascinating magic system. Therefore, anyone hunting for a magic-centered fantasy novel that doesn’t skimp on character development or action should definitely check this out.