Truthwitch is a solidly engaging YA fantasy from Susan Dennard that, I’m guessing, will have a lot of fans (even if it isn’t quite my cup of tea) despite its sometimes nagging issues of craft. I’m assuming the first won’t matter because most of the book’s readers are probably far less weary of teen romance in their YA fantasy than I am, and the second reading obstacle — those craft issues — will most likely be outweighed by the fans’ positive response to Dennard’s depiction of the tight bond between the novel’s two strong female characters.
Those two young woman, Iseult and Safiya, are unregistered witches — Safiya is a Truthwitch able to discern lies from truth; Iseult is a Threadwitch, one who can see the emotional ties (“threads”) between people. While Threadwitches are not uncommon, it’s been a long time since a Truthwitch has been known, and it’s the sort of gift those seeking power would do anything to control. As the continent lurches toward a resumption of a greatly destructive war (the story is set during the renegotiation of a twenty-year truce), the two girls become pawns and players in a deadly game that soon has them fleeing their homeland, chased by a determined Bloodwitch and aided by a grudging ally-rather-than-friend in Prince Merik, a noble who has his own agenda.
There’s a good deal to like about Truthwitch. The relatively rare focus on a pair of tightly knit female friends is one. Either girl would die for the other (and both get their chances to do just that), they have the sort of know-what-the-other-is-going-to-do interactions that drives home just how close they have been for so long, and the relationship is portrayed in a nicely complex fashion, with each having to learn to readjust and reexamine their role in the friendship thanks to ensuing events and revelations.
That complexity extends to their separate personalities and backstories as well, though I don’t want to say too much about that so as to avoid spoilers. But Safiya especially comes across as a particularly dynamic character. Not in the simplistic sense of being active, though she is that too — rash, impetuous, quick-tempered, quick to action — but in the range of emotions and the level of growth she displays throughout the book. Her self-awareness, even if it’s at times a bit too on the nose, mostly does a nice job of lifting the veil off that complexity. Several other characters also show unexpected sides/depths.
The plot of Truthwitch is generally quick moving and entertaining, with more than a few fight scenes, acts of derring-do, chases, a sea battle, twists and turns, and a few surprising (to the characters, if not always to the reader) revelations. I liked how Dennard gave us some clear parallels/echoes between the two girls when they split up for a while. The worldbuilding is adequate if not particularly deep, with a world full of magic (firewitches, healers, windwitches, etc.) offering up some rich potential that is mostly mined to good effect in terms of plot, though its weaving into the larger fabric of society is perhaps a little vague.
The issues I had, as mentioned in my intro, were mostly ones of craft. The book is clunky at times, sometimes overly expository, sometimes way too clearly setting us up for important plot points or reveals. Some moments felt not fully set up or explained, so I wondered just how someone knew something or why someone was reacting in a particular way. Language can be repetitive, and there are a few bits of seeming inconsistency. For instance, a character’s eyes are described as “sea-green” and later the point is made of the character’s “navy blue” clothing bringing out “flecks of the same shade in his eyes.” A minor quibble, absolutely, and perhaps the sea-green eyes have bits of blue in them that just went unmentioned, but it was sufficient to pull me out now and then and there were, as mentioned a few such occasions. Dialogue ranges from quite strong to, well, less so. And as much as I praised the complexity of the two characters, at times they seemed all too immature or reacted (overreacted really) out of all proportion to events. During one dialogue scene I just wrote, “Way too childish,” in the margin. And I had issues of plausibility now and then, either with character decisions, or with their abilities. Both, for instance, I found are far too good at fighting, and this was doubly true when they were fighting shipboard, since neither of them clearly spends much time on a ship at sea.
That last point gets to another issue, which is that Truthwitch, at times, smacks a bit too much of a “chosen one” (or chosen pair) plotting, both in the way that this possibility is clumsily or too obviously introduced/reminded, and in the way that Safiya and Iseult’s abilities are a bit too good.
Finally, the other issue I had is the romance, which is perhaps more a “me” issue than a book issue, though I’d argue it’s a bit of both. I’m definitely less patient with romance in YA in general, and with insta-romance in particular, but when it gets entangled with the whole Bicker-kiss-bicker “I hate you, I just might love you” mode of romance. Well, it’s close to fingernails on a chalkboard (look those up, kids) to me. And there definitely was a bit too much language devoted to eyes and hair for me. Those might be me, but I’d also say the craft plays a role in that the love relationship is way too predictable and often way too clumsily presented in both dialog and interior monologue. But mileage may vary, and I’m guessing for many readers, they’ll love the love.
As a relatively light YA read, Truthwitch is a decent read with its positive aspects marred just enough by its annoying issues to keep it from rising above that sort of shrugging “it’s OK” rating for me. But if you like your YA romance with kickass girls and boys with blue-flecked sea green eyes who grudgingly fall for the kickers-of-ass, then my guess is you’ll ignore those issues, zip through Truthwitch, and breathlessly await book two.
More than once lately, I’ve read an SFF work that Bill has given a less-than-stellar review, with hidden hopes, perhaps, of proving him wrong, or at least proving that reasonable minds can disagree. But once again I find that I have to tip my hat to him and admit that I share his opinion. Bill, you were right and I should have believed you!
Truthwitch starts off in media res, in the midst of a failed heist, and the resulting armed clash and escape are highly dramatic. At the same time, it’s hard to escape the feeling that this is yet another typical young adult romantic fantasy, complete with a teenage kickass heroine (except this time ― bonus! ― you get two of them!), with unique magical powers that make them highly special and sought-after, and unrealistically awesome sword-fighting techniques. As well, there’s the obligatory instant attraction between one of the girls and a prince, with their relationship jump-started by an intricate and steamy dance that, I have to admit, left me fanning myself.
The world-building in Truthwitch has some creative fantasy aspects to it, but isn’t explored or explained clearly enough, and the lack of details sometimes hurt the story. Key concepts like “thread-cutting” and “cleaving” were inadequately explained, as was the virulent prejudice against Iseult’s people.
The deep friendship and loyalty between the two girls, Safiya and Iseult, is laudatory in a genre that too often shorts true friendship between women. But at the same time, this friendship is the source of much frustration. It’s too similar to the obsessive romantic relationships that show up in too many young adult novels, except here it’s between two girls who, although not romantically involved, are still overly reliant on each other. Their relationship goes beyond loyalty and tips over into co-dependent behavior that tosses aside reason and logic. That aspect of the story is quite irritating.
A large part of this problem is caused by Safiya’s immaturity and impetuousness. Again and again Safi makes idiotic decisions that needlessly endanger herself and Iseult, usually because she thinks someone is going to separate her from Iseult and that Simply. Cannot. Be. My frustration with Safi culminated when a great many people have put themselves at risk to save her, whisking her out of town in secrecy, and Safi freaks out and breaks away from her hiding place … once again, just because she can’t bear the thought of being separated for a while from Iseult. Impulsive heroines ― or heroes ― who make stupid decisions because of their strong feelings are, at least to me, much less appealing than the cool, calculating types. In fairness, Safi does realize the error of her reckless ways toward the end of the novel, but by then it was hard to muster up much sympathy for her, and it felt like a rather obvious plot turn.
Truthwitch left me with mixed emotions: at times my reading of it was perfunctory, with me feeling that I’ve read too many books similar to this, but then fairly often a plot twist or character would surprise me with some unexpected depth and the book would recapture my imagination. Between that and the quick, exciting pace of most of the story, Truthwitch will find a large fan base, particularly among teenage and young adult women.