The Black Witch: A thoughtful exploration of prejudice in a fantasy world

The Black Witch by Laurie Forest YA fantasy book reviewsThe Black Witch by Laurie Forest YA fantasy book reviewsThe Black Witch by Laurie Forest

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.

The Iron Flower by Laurie Forest science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsAt 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.

Publication date: May 2, 2017. A new Black Witch will rise…her powers vast beyond imagining. Elloren Gardner is the granddaughter of the last prophesied Black Witch, Carnissa Gardner, who drove back the enemy forces and saved the Gardnerian people during the Realm War. But while she is the absolute spitting image of her famous grandmother, Elloren is utterly devoid of power in a society that prizes magical ability above all else. When she is granted the opportunity to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming an apothecary, Elloren joins her brothers at the prestigious Verpax University to embrace a destiny of her own, free from the shadow of her grandmother’s legacy. But she soon realizes that the university, which admits all manner of people—including the fire-wielding, winged Icarals, the sworn enemies of all Gardnerians—is a treacherous place for the granddaughter of the Black Witch. As evil looms on the horizon and the pressure to live up to her heritage builds, everything Elloren thought she knew will be challenged and torn away. Her best hope of survival may be among the most unlikely band of misfits…if only she can find the courage to trust those she’s been taught to hate and fear.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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  1. You had me at “Icarals, bat-winged shapeshifters with fire-wielding powers.” They sound fascinating.

    I applaud the writer for trying to create a sympathetic, “nice” character who is wrong and then show us her growing out of that. Challenging and risky.

  2. I’d seen some (okay, a LOT) negative pre-release reactions, and naturally, I was curious… Thank you for writing such an even-handed, thoughtful review, Tadiana. Really well done.

  3. It’s been an intense pre-release scene for this book! A few reviewers have taken it as their personal mission in life to shoot down this book as loudly and as often as possible, and a lot of other people immediately jumped on the anti-TBW bandwagon because, who DOESN’T want to take a position against racism and bigotry? Except that I think their position is misguided in this case. It’ll be interesting to see how well The Black Witch sells.

  4. Tibicina /

    Psst. ‘Urisk’ is lowland Scots for a type of fae who look kinds of like satyrs (upper half human, lower half goat) and who tend to hang out in pool, rivers, and other remote locations trying to make friends with passers by. It’s also sometimes used in lowland Scots for brownies or other house fae. Sometimes also spelled uruisg.

    Which is another criticism I’ve seen of the book from people who have read it. She seems to use words from European folklore somewhat indiscriminately, often seeming to think ‘well, if it’s obscure enough, then totally changing it won’t be noticed’. Also using words that should not exist in the world she’s created like ‘Athanaeum’ – if Athens doesn’t exist, why would that word?

    If she’s setting the Gardnerians up as the villains, that’s also potentially a problem given that that is a real-world religion which is already subject to a lot of prejudice. (and whose beliefs and practices she has also twisted around quite a bit.)

    • Very interesting, Tibicina! I hadn’t heard about the urisk before, but I’m not surprised Laurie Forest pulled it from actual folklore and gave it a twist, as she’s done with other peoples in this book. Unfortunately it’s a fairly common trick in fantasy literature, and it’s often done lazily or as a shortcut. And after reading up just now on the Gardnerian Wicca group and beliefs, I agree that Forest is walking a thin line with that race as well, in setting them up as the primary villains. It may be that it’s the current group in leadership of their nation that’s the main problem, but I hope she’s careful with this in the sequels.

      I had to smile at her turning Wiccan/pagan handfasting into “wandfasting.”

      Thanks for commenting.

  5. Besides the fact that Gardnerian Wicca is an actual real-world thing and religion, and thus it seems immediately dodgy to take the word and apply it to a fantasy people (can you imagine anyone doing that with Christianity or Islam?)…this book really is unbelievably disgusting, and I’m really disappointed that this review was so tone-deaf. Elloren is a despicable person at the beginning of the book, and she’s still despicable at the end of it – only making the smallest, tiniest steps ‘forward’ in the closing pages. I don’t understand why anyone is being encouraged to force their way through hundreds and hundreds of pages of hate just to see a pretty white girl *begin* to grasp the concept that she’s a truly horrible person (which she never really acknowledges). It’s a narrative that says ‘it’s okay that she’s a constant fount of hatred, because by the end she’ll be better!’ Except that she isn’t, not really, and it’s especially cringe-inducing to see how the minority-coded characters she tries to apologise to fall over themselves to make her feel better about what she did the moment she makes an attempt at mouthing platitudes. This book is barely even a *story*, it’s just page after page of every possible kind of human poison thrown at the reader – nothing really happens, in all those hundreds of pages, no adventure or mystery. The world-building is embarrassingly bad. Elloren’s ‘love-interest’ sexually assaults her and we have Elloren immediately trying to apologise for him. This is on top of the racism, sexism, and homophobia you pretty much glossed over in your review.

    And I don’t think it’s at *all* acceptable to equate the prejudice of the minority groups with the Gardnerians’ abuse. The hatred of the oppressed for the oppressor is in no way comparable to the oppression itself, or justifies it. If everyone else hates the Gardnerians, can you really *blame* them?

    Honestly, the moment I read ‘even a nice person can be steeped in prejudice because of their culture and upbringing’ I knew this was going to be awful. You’re not ‘nice’ if you’re racist, homophobic, manipulative, abusive, and sexist to any degree, but especially not to the *staggering* levels of Elloren’s prejudices. Your upbringing is irrelevant, it may explain your prejudices, but you’re still not a nice person. Gods. Some days I’m ashamed to be white, I swear.

    I’ve been a daily reader for almost four years, but don’t expect me back after this. Sia out.

    • I think my review makes it quite clear that this book is all about the issue of racism, sexism, and other types of prejudice and bigotry. You’re correct that Elloren is steeped in prejudice. I do think it’s a worthwhile thing to write about her struggles with that, and to hear it in her own voice … even if that means you have to read some disgusting things that she’s thinking and saying. We have to distinguish between the character’s voice and the author’s.

      I definitely get that some readers will hate being in Elloren’s head as she’s slowly working through the process of change, and that’s totally understandable. Personally, that’s why I’ll never read Nabakov’s Lolita. But other readers may be helped by reading this story to reexamine their own biases.

      You think that Laurie Forest has done a terrible job of showing Elloren’s process of changing, and that’s a valid opinion. But I don’t think it’s fair to call The Black Witch a disgusting book, when it’s totally clear that her ultimate message to the reader is that “Prejudice is wrong.” Did Forest do a perfect job of handling that message in her book? Far from it. But I give her credit for at least trying.

  6. I did wonder about the Gardnerian thing but I think fantasy has a convention of using existing religions as stand-ins for bad behavior; I can think of a lot of “cults” in urban fantasy that fit the bill, and even Charles Stross’s Laundry Files series has a book that boasts a mega-church in Colorado that has secretly been taken over by cross-dimensional demons.

    I wonder if it’s going to be completely successful in this case. Epic fantasy has to struggle to overcome the tendency to be derivative, and this will be a real challenge for the writer.

  7. But I also saw where other readers were coming from. It humanizes a bigot and spends a lot of time in her head. Here’s my review of it.

    In any case, I thought you did an amazingly good review and one which was very fair.

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