Book Review: The Black Witch by Laurie Forest

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The review you’ve all been waiting for! Note: there are some spoilers in here as I had to really get into what I liked or didn’t like in the book, but I tried to keep the ending in tact as much as I could for those who are interested in actual reading.

I discovered The Black Witch a couple of months ago, when a book reviewer slammed the book with 8,500+ words of screeching, flailing and literally can’t even-ing. Like fake news, this person provided a FAKE REVIEW. It began with: The Black Witch is the most dangerous, offensive, book I’ve ever read. It’s racist, ableist, homophobic, and is written with no marginalized people in mind.

Wow. I wish I could get such a review for my next book. Imagine what my sales would be then? I’d ask her for one but I find myself already blocked by this person.

Anyhow, the fake review is extremely long, and really doesn’t speak to the substance of the book at all, but takes lines without context to make some of the most bizarre, inaccurate points one could ever have imagined about this extremely innocuous YA fantasy novel. Because of this, hundreds of alt-left internet trolls took to Goodreads and left drive-by hate reviews to try to torch the book and author without ever having read it. If the original review hadn’t gotten me interested, the sheer bullying evil that the reviewer’s followers acted with made me certain to support this author. I might add, that kind of bullying is something that the author speaks against heavily in the book. Irony points for people too stupid to read.

Without further ado, a real review of The Black Witch:

The Black Witch follows a girl in a rural village. There’s a prophecy that they believe she’ll rise up and fight the evil one – standard fantasy fare. The evil ones are considered some abomination race that sprouts wings and the like, and they seem to be able to come from any birth whether it’s our Gardnerian humans or elves. It’s not exactly clear where they originate from but there’s some background that there were fae in the world that intermixed with everyone, and a lot of people have fae blood which is magical, but the fae themselves were mostly exterminated in a war a long time back or gone into hiding. It ramps up as one of Elloren (the main character)’s friends has one of these abomination children, which shows she was unfaithful to the mage she’s been wandfasted (their form of marriage which isn’t shown on screen but I believe involves some magical tie) to. The friend goes on the run to save her baby. Elloren is whisked away by her very powerful mage aunt. Her friend left with her some powerful wand that’s supposed to be a relic from myth. Only problem is, Elloren can’t actually do magic. Some power stirs within her, but there’s a mystery that’s left her magicless.

Elloren is set to live with her aunt for a few days before she goes to university – which is sorta Harry Potter-style wizard school but also deals with apothecary and other fantasy trope items in this book. At this section we meet the powerful bad boy love interest, Lukas Grey, and the rival Fallon Bane as this develops more into a paranormal romance than regular fantasy for a good chunk of pages. It returns to its fantasy plot when Elloren is attacked by members of the evil race who know she’s going to be the reincarnated Black Witch, as her grandmother decimated them years ago. Elloren escapes with the help of Lukas and they head to wizard school.

This was about the first 100-150 pages – and honestly, I found it extremely exciting. The pacing was relentless, the writing crisp, nothing really to complain about at all here. We get glimpses that the Gardnerians hate other fantasy races, especially from the aunt, and we get the feeling that Elloren the main character is uncomfortable with this, but trusts her authorities on it anyway as she has no life experience. The reader definitely wishes she wouldn’t, because that’s where the sympathies are played by the author, but any sane reader would be good with being immersed in a very well developed world with a fun plot, high danger, and interesting romance. What’s interesting is how every character seems to treat Elloren terribly except for Lukas, which continues for awhile throughout the book. She’s almost psychologically abused from every angle, and it both creates sympathy for the character and shows her resolve and value.  Reallly an A+ on the characterization and world and even the plot at this point.

Once it gets to university, however, the story bogs down and loses focus.  There are a lot of pages where meanders to meeting different fantasy races, showing why Elloren and Gardnerians hate them, and why they hate Gardnerians and Elloren, as well as dropping far too much backstory history.  This continues for the next three hundred or so pages of the book. We’re in very mundane situations in school, with extraordinary creatures like elves, wolf-shifters, etc. just doing ordinary things, but also sneering at our main character and making her life miserable and abusing her like everyone else does in the book. Elloren naturally reacts that she hates these people, and blames it on their race, where it can get a little preachy at points that this reaction is bad and one shouldn’t do that. Of course, with these people actively trying to physically and psychologically injure her at every turn, can’t say I blame her in the least. There’s a large cast of characters introduced, many of whom are interchangeable for this message beyond descriptions of their races and histories. I don’t really have much of a problem with the preachiness there other than a suspension of disbelief problem of the sudden switch in Elloren where she realizes she just hates her own race and loves all these others to force the message. She reads some books that show her people basically caused all these races to hate them, and that they’re just terrible. It’s a bit over the top of a presentation and reaction.

I’ll reiterate that I agree with the message: don’t dehumanize individuals around you just because of who they are. That’s quite a sensible message, but it again comes back to the length and how that message is presented with the “I’m really fighting for the wrong side” trope. It both convolutes the great lengths the author went to present the message, and derails the cool, exciting fantasy story in the beginning of the book. During this time we lose all focus on anything in the opening.  Lukas Grey goes away, Fallon Bane the evil witch rival gets a lot of mentions but gets less and less on screen time as it goes on too. We find most of the plot and characters abandoned for new ones. I read somewhere that this book was written out-of-order scene wise, and it could have used some tighter outlining to keep the plot on point. I think if this section was 100 pages instead of 300 pages, it would have been a much stronger novel. My suggestion would have been: the evil winged creatures would have come and attacked her in the night but her roommate winged creatures defended her—just to keep that early developed plot thread going. If that happened or something similar in the middle there to break it up, it would have felt more cohesive. The reader could have still received the don’t dehumanize individuals message but also maintained the original plot and not had it feel like the book’s entire purpose is an allegory for white guilt. Instead what we find is the Gardnerians are just bad at every turn. Even though all the fantasy races are also awful to her, in many cases moreso than her own people, Elloren just accepts that awfulness and over pages, while hating her own people. The fantasy races we learn are really just that way because they’re so oppressed. Lukas is ignored during this and she develops a relationship with a boy who has a mysterious mixed-race background Yvan instead, which also disappointed me, as co-opting Lukas would have made for a better plot as well.

Then it gets back to what I loved about the beginning. The kids decide they’re going to take on the Gardnerian military and escape and get all the fantasy creatures to safety. Action picks up, pace picks back up, the last 150 pages of the book stutter at points back into the message fiction, but when it hits full stride it really hits full stride and is masterfully done. It doesn’t fulfill much of the promises at the beginning of the book – thus is the way of series these days sadly, as they serialize plots across books rather than chapters, but it’s got its own plot that I found worth reading and a lot of fun that I won’t spoil.

The result is we have about half a great book, half a meandering message fiction book. The message was pretty subtle at the beginning and it went full tilt as the book went on to a point where it became too much in a reader’s face without advancing plot. An example of the more annoying aspects is there is a mage running for their office who was LITERALLY HITLER talking about eradicating species and making everyone where arm bands in support. It was a bit much.  There’s also a section where one of the other races starts lecturing Elloren “why do you think your religion is right we have our own creation myths too!” or something of the like, and Elloren just nods and agrees, pushing the multiculturalism is great angle, which I strongly disagree with the premise of, and it doesn’t make much sense given the characters that it was just accepted.

That’s not to say that the message/allegory were all bad either. What I did like about those points that none of it directly lined up with current events or current cultures, so it wasn’t finger wagging at a group either. I give this props as a lot of authors of this particular multiculturalist viewpoint tend to show their real prejudices in picking on American/Christian culture, which this author avoids. The Gardnerians act like extreme islamists in the way they force girls into marriage at a hyper young age (which was a cool point of the culture from a worldbuilding perspective – especially with the magic involved), but not all the way so as it has a lot of Christian religious elements as well, no direct allegory there. The Hitler dude in power was definitely is its own unique thing with the way their mage-council was structured, not an “American culture is bad” message. Dehumanizing people is bad. Real racism is bad. That’s all stuff that we can agree on and appreciate that the author is trying to say.

Her writing was also excellent on the prose level. This was in a first person present form for most of the book, which usually annoys me to the point where I won’t read past a page, but the author pulled this off fine to where I didn’t even notice it. It just kept the pace at awesome speed, and that’s a testament to her ability to write. It switched perspectives and forms at points and that didn’t ever throw me out, which is a difficult task. Descriptions are great, the world really had a lot of thought as I mentioned, many of the characters were unique and interesting. I do keep in mind that this is a debut novel and she’ll probably only get better from this point forward. It’s an interesting start to a series, got a great climax, good times, sets up the next book nicely.

Overall, because of the lengthiness and how I felt it could have been trimmed down, I call this a 7/10. Very close to being the next great fantasy, and with her talent I honestly expect that her next book will be. I do have one point for her as I saw some alarming interviews that I’m guessing were a reaction to the bullying: please ignore sensitivity readers. Don’t let people censor your thoughts or your ideas. This is your world, your story, keep it that way. Watering it down will only prevent greatness.

 

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