My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Disclosure: I consider Laurie Forest a colleague. We both write epic fantasy and live in a small state with an active writing community. I have not received any material support from her, encouragement, or endorsement to write this review. I paid full price for my signed copy.
Elloren Gardner lives in a diverse magical world, but for many reasons, her uncle has sheltered her on his farm since she was a small child. She is the granddaughter of The Black Witch, a legendary sorceress who is regarded as a patriot and freedom fighter for her people, who all achieve some level of magical ability. Elloren’s curse is that despite her striking resemblance to her grandmother, her only magical ability is to find peace, comfort, and psychological communion with bits of wood. She’s a great violinist, but can’t even light a candle, and wouldn’t be allowed a wand.
A fight over Elloren’s future arises when her aunt, a prominent politician, and her uncle disagree over an arranged marriage for Elloren. She travels out of her small town and right away is confronted by her own prejudices, the prejudices of other races in her world (including werewolves, elves, and a variety of other human-like races with varying magical abilities and variants thereof), and the expectations of those who want a piece of her future. And of course, there’s just being an eighteen year-old girl: she has crushes, gets bullied, bullies others, and has to change in order to survive.
This book is about a crucial time that happens in everyone’s lives, when one finds out the world is not the way you were brought up to believe. This happens several ways for Elloren, but the truth of it comes across in well-crafted prose that is never cliche or trite. As an example, in the first fifty pages, Forest introduces a magical creature that comes from a well-known (human) legend, however she does it in a way that is most psychologically relevant for the character. Elloren sees a selkie, and there is some exposition, but it’s done in a way that shows Elloren’s carefully-sheltered world crumbling around her.
This book is typical of recent YA fantasy and science fiction: it’s written in first-person present-tense and expresses a character arc that is common in the genre (almost genre-defining), but the impact of it is unique and challenging. Elloren doesn’t know how diverse and challenging her world is until it is literally shoved in her face (or her face is shoved in it, I should say). She has to confront her own prejudices or she will die of ignorance.
I was looking forward to the release of The Black Witch for over a year just to support the author, but I wasn’t sure I would buy it, as it’s not in a genre I usually read, and I’m not usually swayed by reviews. However, I bought it after seeing how much its publisher is behind it, and hearing about good reviews from reputable trade publications. Even after I met the author and we chatted about the national book business and the local scene, I took it home entirely expecting to be disappointed with a mushy, inarticulate, eighth-grade piece of work that I could give to the library after forty pages.
I was completely wrong. I couldn’t put this book down, and I kept it with me at all times. A hardcover with a dust-jacket. This book has more psychological depth, literary quality, and is better plotted than any of the Harry Potter series except maybe Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (and that’s a big maybe until I re-read that one). I have never gotten very far with a YA fantasy, as many as I have tried: there’s always something cheesy or overtly cliché. This book, for all its stock elements (dragons, werewolves, wands, magic school), stays close to the character and her experience. You will know why everything is significant in this book, and won’t be expected to know just because the author is mentioning genre furniture. Laurie Forest is a good writer; she didn’t get lucky, she worked hard to craft a very good book. She successfully challenged my prejudices about YA fantasy!
To the people who read this book and badly rated it based on its content: it’s a story. A story must challenge the character to grow or else it’s not a story. This story is about prejudice and narrow-mindedness. Everyone in the story (even the dragons, even the main character) is prejudiced and narrow-minded. That’s the point. Of course there’s disturbing content. It’s supposed to disturb you. There seems to be a complete lack of understanding about what fiction is: the characters say horrible things in the context of their own fictional world, and we get the privilege of learning from them (or just enjoying their story). Serious questions, not rhetorical: Is Selma a “racist movie” since it depicts race-motivated violence that actually happened? How about Schindler’s List? Beyond just enjoyment and good storytelling, how would we learn anything from our history and our bad behavior if we didn’t tell stories about it? Now for the rhetorical questions: when someone says something racist or homophobic is a character supposed to step in and say “Hey cut that out, the reader doesn’t want that in her world!” No, you the reader are supposed to react and say “Wow, that’s horrible, I don’t want that in my world so I’m going to work against it and be a better person.”
To the people who haven’t read the book and are rating it low: you’re not activists. You’re trying to hurt someone’s career at a vulnerable juncture because you think you’re doing the right thing. You should read the book and see how harmful your narrow viewpoint is.