In an ironic twist, The Black Witch (2017), a book expressly dedicated to exploring the problem of prejudice and promoting diversity and tolerance, has been accused by many voices of being the very thing it is most devoted to showing as wrong. Words like “offensive,” “racist,” “ableist,” and “homophobic” have been hurled at the author and this book. It’s understandable, because the society and most of the characters depicted in The Black Witch ― including the main character, Elloren, a beautiful and otherwise kindhearted girl ― are prejudiced and dismissive, even cruel, toward other races. It’s also deeply unfortunate and unfair, because obviously the author’s primary purpose is to show how even a nice person can be steeped in prejudice because of their culture and upbringing, and how that can change gradually as they meet new people, have new experiences, and slowly come to know better. It’s actually a great idea for a young adult fantasy novel.
Seventeen year old Elloren Gardner is a member of one of the most prominent families in the country of Gardneria. She has the black hair, forest green eyes and white skin with a subtle shimmer that characterize her people, the Gardnerian Mages, and is also the spitting image of her famous grandmother, Carnissa Gardner, a powerful mage known as the Black Witch who saved her people during a bitter war. But Elloren seems to be lacking in any magical talent at all. Orphaned at a young age, her Uncle Edwin has raised her and her two brothers in the country, far away from the capital city of Valgard and its power politics … and Elloren’s Aunt Vyvian, a member of the High Mage Council.
But now Aunt Vyvian has come to bring Elloren to the city, and from there to the prestigious Verpax University in the neighboring country of Verpacia. Elloren wants to become an apothecary; her aunt is insistent that she first “wandfast” (the Gardnerian form of marriage) with a powerful young mage, Lukas Grey. Elloren resists, even though she’s strongly attracted to Lukas; she’s just met him, and she promised her uncle that she’d wait to wandfast for a couple of years, until she finishes her education. Aunt Vyvian is highly displeased ― and once Elloren gets to the university, she finds out just how many ways her powerful and well-connected aunt can find to show her displeasure, make life difficult for Elloren, and convince Elloren to do what her aunt wants.
Verpax University is a colorful and diverse place, a melting pot of many races: there are various types of fae (water, air, fire, and more), Kelts (a non-magical human race), Lupines (wolf shapeshifters), Icarals (bat-winged shapeshifters with fire-wielding power), elves, selkies, and more. (It’s a bit confusing, actually.) Elloren is assigned two Icaral-type roommates as part of her aunt’s punishing regime, and is forced to work in the university’s kitchen amongst humble non-Gardnerian workers of various races ― most of whom hate her on sight, just because she’s a Gardnerian and part of the oppressive ruling class. More hatred comes Elloren’s direction from Fallon Bane, a talented Gardnerian Mage and a romantic rival for Lukas’ attention.
At Verpax University Laurie Forest begins delving more deeply into the theme of prejudices, particularly the lies that people can tell each other and themselves about their history, how awful people are who are different from them, and how their own race or nationality is better than any other type. The Gardnerians think they’re best and are disdainful toward other races … but we also see prejudice and unkind treatment based on racial stereotypes from practically every other group. Prejudice isn’t limited to just the Gardnerians, the ruling class. But they are the ones currently in power, and their leaders are actively looking to become more powerful.
Elloren narrates this story in first person present tense, and some readers will find it just too painful or off-putting to be inside Elloren’s head and hearing her voice as she says all kinds of bigoted things, which she does very frequently, especially in the first half of the book. But it gradually becomes clear to Elloren that she and her society have been wrong. It takes most of the book, and even as she’s slowly changing she still says and thinks a lot of stupid things. But that’s entirely realistic. Change is not an immediate, magical process, and not all prejudiced people are evil and ugly and villainous … and they shouldn’t be depicted as such, even in a YA novel. Many people are biased just because they don’t know and have never been taught any better, and that’s what is going on with Elloren in The Black Witch.
The world created by Laurie Forest in The Black Witch is a fairly traditional fantasy world with races and types that are largely recognizable, with a few original twists like the Urisk, a people with a magical affinity for gemstones. The university setting owes a fairly large debt to Hogwarts and the HARRY POTTER series. There are a fair number of broad hints that, despite Elloren’s current lack of magical power, at some point she’ll have a breakthrough and become the new Black Witch of the prophecies, so The Chosen One trope is definitely in play here as well. It’s the additional factor of the widespread prejudice, bigotry and cruelty in this world, and Forest’s focus on that problem, that set The Black Witch apart from otherwise similar books in the YA fantasy genre. It’s encouraging to see not just Elloren, but many other characters of different races, come together and learn to be more accepting of each other. The climax of the story is a perfect example of interracial cooperation, where multiple characters play a vital role.
The Black Witch has a few other literary weaknesses: There are some key characters who are strictly cardboard portraits of hatred and bigotry. Elloren’s enemy and rival Fallon is one: a standard vicious queen bee character who is desperately jealous of Elloren’s relationship with Lukas. It would have been preferable to see a rival for Elloren who has some good points (other than her great magical power) and some subtlety as a character. Lukas’ character may offend readers who don’t like romantic interests in the form of hot guys who are alpha jerks, though this can be excused given the way their relationship shifts over the course of the novel. Additionally, Forest’s inexperience as an author shows through occasionally with “saidisms” and other trite or overused phrasing. In Chapter 14, for example, I counted six times in eight pages where a character “spits out” a laugh, a comment, or a sound of derision.
As much as anything else, The Black Witch is the story of a young woman who is slowly clearing the webs of prejudice and bigotry from her head. Being forced together with Icaral roommates, the most despised of all other races, beginning to fall for someone who is of another race … and who is perhaps even more different than she initially thinks, and watching some of those who are closest to her do the same, all help that process along. This change process may happen too slowly or painfully for some readers, but it does add a different flavor to this romance- and adventure-oriented YA fantasy, the first in a planned series of four books.