Susan Dennard and Sarah J. Maas are best friends, it appears. While this may have enticed other readers, it actually made me shrink back a little from picking up Truthwitch. I just recently read my first Sarah J. Maas book and wasn’t impressed. But an open mind helps, in this case especially so, because Susan Dennard’s novel may have started off weak but turned into quite the rollercoaster of fun and romance and great friendships.
by Susan Dennard
Published by: Tor Teen, 2016
Ebook: 416 pages
Series: The Witchlands #1
My rating: 7,5/10
First sentence: Everything had gone horribly wrong.
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.
The opening chapters of Truthwitch both give you a good feeling about what’s to come and a very wrong impression of what the novel is actually about. You can rely on a fast-paced plot, a quick read, but don’t let the shaky world-building and the clunky attempts to bring the two protagonists to life keep you from reading on. It really does get much, much better. In fact, most things that made me roll my eyes during the first chapters turned into the aspects of the novel I liked best at the end. Patience is key here.
Safi and Iseult are best friends. More than friends, a fact that is hammered in so hard in the first two chapters that you’re unlikely to forget. They are Threadsisters, a bond which isn’t ever really explained but kind of understood from context. These two girls would die for each other and I loved that this type of relationship is what the whole story centers around. However, we are told much more than shown how close Safi and Iseult really are. Their respective back stories, their past, isn’t revealed until later in the book and it would have really helped to understand their relationship better. I also still find it unclear what they did every day before the shit hit the fan and the events of Truthwitch took their course. Sure, they mention having teachers and learning stuff, they apparently enjoy conning people in their spare time, but none of that was believable or memorable. So that’s a big no from me for the first few chapters. Fast-paced they may be, but the don’t do much for either world-building or introducing the characters properly.
However! It turns out Safi is quite an important person – even with her witchery a secret from most of the world – and needs to make one last appearance at a royal ball before her uncle will allow her to leave and live her life in freedom. No responsibilites, no ties to her noble family, no fear of being caught up in politics. It is this ball that changes a mediocre novel into a thrilling, fun, action-packed adventure that has a bit of everything. If you’re just starting the book and you get to the part with the ball, prepare a pot of tea (or your beverage of choice), something to munch and a cozy blanket. You will not want to put Truthwitch down after this.
At this ball, Safi meets Merik, a Nubrevnan prince desperately seeking trade agreements for his starving kingdom. The two immediately dislike each other and start fighting – if you’ve been following my blog you know what that means. The pages kept flying by because I needed this two bickering idiots to get together. So the romance was one part that made things interesting. And let me tell you, as much as they are both fighting their feelings, whenever they clash (literally and figuratively), Susan Dennard shows just what she can do. Unlike the cheesy, drippy scenes I had been afraid of, she actually delivers super exciting, sexy stuff. More of that in the next book, please!
The other reason I ended up loving this book was the world-building. Again, this was the weakest bit in the first few chapters, as nothing seemed to make sense, even internally. There are witches – I don’t know if everybody is born with a witch gift or just some people, but it appears everyone can do something. These witchy powers come from the elements, but that also doesn’t make a lot of sense. Some Waterwitches are healers but they can only heal blood (because it’s liquid, I assume), while other healers have to be Firewitches – they can heal other body parts, and so on. Windwitches have vastly differing powers as well. Some can fly, others can control the weather, yet others are probably healers… I don’t really know. Every type of element-witch seems to have sub-witches. Waterwitches can be Tidewitches, and they are the ones controlling the seas to push a ship, for example. You see, it’s all pretty confusing, but after a while I just accepted that this is like human Pokémon on steroids and went with it.
What’s interesting about that is that Safi and Iseult’s gift are both passive. There are immensely powerful witches who can control other people’s blood or their air supply and are (obviously, because people are assholes) used as weapons. And then you have Safi, who can tell if somebody is lying or not. And Iseult, who sees people’s threads and, in the threads’ colors, their emotions. There also is an ancient mythology/prophecy telling of two witches who will be the chosen ones… it would have been so nice to see this trope subverted but I guess we can’t have everything. Still, the idea of witches has a lot of potential. Maybe Susan Dennard can throw in a spin-off novel about witch academy or something so I can make sense of her world-building. I would totally read that.
Another thing I loved was that Safi and Iseult both get to be protagonists. The story switches between view points, so we see the events unfold through Safi and Iseult’s eyes, but also (and here’s another big thank you to Susan Dennard for being awesome) from the Bloodwitch Aeduan’s perspective as well as Merik’s. Aeduan is on the hunt for our heroines, fully intending to kill them or at least use them, but giving this villain a chapter or two to show us his side makes him much more human, if not exactly less scary. I loved Merik from the start but, again, his character gained a lot from having things told from his point of view. He’s not only the gruff, serious love interest, he’s an actual person with problems of his own. A lot of problems, I might add.
All things considered, I loved this book. Yes, it has problems, but they are problems I can overlook because the things that were done well are all more important to me than a perfectly-planned magic system. Iseult and Safi’s relationship still feels a bit wobbly but their strong bond became more and more believable the more I read. The romance was spot on (and I can see another one coming up), even side characters are fleshed-out. The story moves at breakneck speed and whether you want people controlling crazy weather, fighting giant monsters at sea, or sword fights, there’s a bit of everything here.
Sure, certain things are extremely predictable (the romance, the prophecy), but others genuinely surprised me. It’s difficult to say who the real antagonist is in this world. There are kingdoms preparing for war and any one of them could be considered evil (or just trying to save their own people), Aeduan has no qualms about catching Safi and using her for his master’s purposes, but then another villain appears and that is the scariest of them all. Add to that the truce between nations that is about to end – will the war pick up where it left, will people be reasonable and come to an agreement? Will the rulers of these kingdoms do their best for their people or for their own personal gain? I have ideas about that but I’d much rather see what Susan Dennard comes up with.
In the end, a lot of questions are unanswered, a lot of plot strings left hanging, but at the same time Truthwitch tells a satisfying tale that introduces an intersting world and even allows its characters time to grow. As bad as it may have started, I am quite in love with this story now and will definitely pick up the next book in the series.
MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!