The three-part story of Fernanda “Fern” Capel that began in Prospero’s Children and continued in The Dragon Charmer comes to its conclusion in The Witch Queen. A young woman now, Fern has resigned herself to the presence of magic in her life and accepted (however reluctantly) that her Gift means that the life of a witch is the only one she can lead. In Prospero’s Children Fern time-traveled back to the City of Atlantis, where she loved and lost a young man of that nation; and in The Dragon Charmer she became the unwilling student of the witch Morgus (known in life as Morgause, the sister of Morgan le Fay), eventually betraying and slaying her tutor in her desire to return to her ordinary life. But Morgus was not destroyed when Fern flung her into the River Styx, and now she has emerged stronger than ever to wreak revenge on Fern for abandoning her.
Fern also has to content with the demon Azmordis, a foe who has threatened her throughout the entire trilogy, his mind set on gaining Fern’s soul and power for his own. Lately she has been haunted by a dream in which she meets Azmordis in his earthly seat of power (a giant corporate building, naturally) and signs away her soul. Troubled by this nightmare, and knowing that life seldom ends well for those with the Gift, Fern is certain that trouble lies ahead. Even her brother Will, her mentor Ragginbone and her best friend (the unfortunately named) Gaynor are no comfort to her.
On the eve of the millennium, a masked ball is held at Wrokeby Hall, where an unknown illness strikes down Dana Walgrim — the daughter of the owner. She lies in a deep sleep that she cannot be awoken from, and her brother Lucas is at a loss… till he hears of a similar case a few years ago, in which a young woman also lay in a mysterious coma. He is referred to Fern, the two meet, and Fern is struck by familiarity. Could Lucas be the reincarnation of Rafarl, her Atlantean love? Despite her reluctance to dabble in the dark arts, she agrees to help him rescue his sister; but of course the investigation is connected to the reemergence of Morgus, who has a plan to bring Fern to her knees, one that involves an offshoot of the Great Tree Yggdrasil and its harvest of heads. And in the background lurks Azmordis, whose plans run even more deeply…
Okay, I’ll admit it — I have been a staunch supporter for Jan Siegel’s trilogy, recommending them despite the rather lukewarm reviews of other readers. I love Siegel’s language, her ideas, her ability to put a fresh spin on old traditions, and I especially love the way that reading a fantasy novel by Siegel is in no way familiar — she’s no Tolkien ghost-writer. I get sick of unimaginative fantasists who simply echo Tolkien; and thankfully Siegel does not fall into this category. Neither does she pander to the reader: Fern goes through difficult, painful and life-changing experiences throughout her like — unlike the hijinks strewn throughout Harry Potter, being a witch is portrayed here as a heavy burden for a human being to bear. There are complaints that Fern’s story is too depressing and nihilistic, which is a reasonable criticism given the mind-numbing curveball that Siegel throws us three-quarters of the way through the story. But it is a twist that fits well within the scope, theme and atmosphere of the story; it is not done simply to shock or depress us, and it serves a very clear and fitting purpose: to show us just how strong Fern really is, and how devoted to the cause of good. Fern was rather distant in Prospero’s Children, but I warmed up to her more in Dragon Charmer — now, for the first time, I admired her, and empathized with her pain. Finally, she comes up with a truly remarkable and bittersweet solution to Fern’s conundrum. Well played, Siegel. Well played.
However, there are problems. In the previous book The Dragon-Charmer, a dragon — yes, an actual dragon is released back into the world, a powerful force that was sure to have a part to play in the final installment of the trilogy. Nope — it’s barely even mentioned, which makes its central role in the previous story as the magical McGuffin rather problematic. That’s not as bad as Siegel’s treatment of the wizard Ragginbone and his companion Lougarry, a cursed werewolf. They were introduced in Prospero’s Children as a wizard who has lost his powers and a woman who has been cursed to bear the burden of lycanthropy. Their relationship and their lives before meeting Fern are initially shrouded in mystery — and they unfortunately stay that way. Why did Ragginbone loose his powers? Why was Lougarry cursed? Who was she before she was a werewolf? How did the two of them meet? There is a fascinating back-story to these two characters that begs to be explored, but it is an opportunity that Siegel never takes. Of course, in any story, there are some elements that are best left an enigma (such as Siegel’s intriguing use of Morgus’s sister) but Ragginbone and Lougarry have been with us from the first book, and the author owed us some details and explanations. Without it, one has to question why these two characters were even in the trilogy to begin with. Bad form, Siegel. Bad form.
So, The Witch Queen is the weakest of the three books, and I have to admit, a little disappointing. Jan Siegel also squanders several other opportunities, including her established friendship between Fern and Kaliburn, and I’m wondering why she thought it necessary to reintroduce Sysselore. And it takes forever for the story to get started — it is not till page 105 that the two foes actually start making their moves against one another; beforehand is an achingly slow buildup to the action. But for all of this, I still recommend the Fern trilogy. It may not be to everyone’s tastes since it does get rather dark in places, but it is worth the read simply because of its originality and Siegel’s beautiful use of language (which is right up there with fellow fantasist Patricia McKillip). Take a chance on it: start with Prospero’s Children, and work your way through the trilogy.
P.S.: The Witch Queen is also known as Witch’s Honour in some publications, but they are exactly the same texts.
Fern Capel — (2001-2003) Young Adult. The Witch Queen is also known as Witch’s Honour. Publisher: It began ages past in fabled Atlantis, when a mad, power-hungry queen forged a key to a door never meant to be opened by mortal man — its inception would hasten her own death and the extinction of her vainglorious race. For millennia the key lay forgotten beneath the waves, lost amid the ruins of what had been the most beautiful city on Earth. But however jealously the sea hoards its secrets, sooner or later it yields them up. Now, in present-day Yorkshire, that time has come. And for young Fernanda Capel, life will never be the same again…