Truthwitch by Susan Dennard
Truthwitch was one of those books that I kept seeing on Instagram, and generally with enough positive reviews that it mentally got catalogued in the “Yeah, maybe someday” section of my TBR list.
When I saw that Susan Dennard was going to be a guest at BookCon, I decided that I needed to jump her book to the top of my list as part of my effort to be better versed in the work of all the authors in attendance.
Based on this first book seeing Dennard won’t be a huge priority for me, though there was a lot to like about her first Witchlands novel.
In an effort to keep things spoiler-free, I will only address content that is already shared in the blurb from Goodreads:
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.
Let me start by saying that I love books with epic worldbuilding. I love when something new is built from the ground up, but as it’s new, these ideas, cultures, histories, locations, and people all require a gentle guiding hand. This is something that I think that Dennard’s friend Sarah J Maas does really well, helping to coax the reader through all the new information in a dynamic and most often-straightforward manner.
What didn’t work for me about this book was how often I was left to puzzle something out strictly through context, especially in the first 100 pages of the book. It began to feel like a case of “show, don’t tell” gone wrong- a little telling is helpful in a new world with new rules.
Iseult: I can’t make the thing.
Me: Wait, what’s the thing? Why do you need to make the thing? Oh, we’re moving on already? Ok.
Angry Man: Iseult, you’re garbage because of the people you come from!
Me: Wait, why? What did they do? Is this racism content for the sake of racism content?
Eventually I became interested enough in the two main characters to keep reading, despite the shaky start. Of the two Iseult felt the most developed, with slightly more backstory than Safi, and with a greater depth of emotions. And Prince Merik was motivated by a relatable, high stakes background that made his story the clearest of all the characters.
Most of the time the character choices and actions felt superficial to me, and I can’t tell if it’s because I don’t know the characters well, or because Dennard is writing superficial choices. Safi’s “I keep making mistakes because I’m so headstrong” attitude feels like something that sounds compelling on paper, as opposed to a genuine character flaw we see in her actions.
I did enjoy some of the greater mythology that is explored in the book- the literal wells of power that are part of the origin story, and I’m always a sucker for prophecies.
And then there’s a villain whose work actually did unsettle me, despite retreading some worn territory.
That content was enough for me to feel like the world of this starter novel could flourish into something richer in the second book. Though, I can’t say for certain if I’ll read that book.
-Interesting imagery, in how the scenes are described and how some of the more fantastical elements are described.
-Girl power- I always appreciate leading ladies with awesome fighting skills, especially ones who prize their friendship above all else.
-Hint of mystery- there’s clearly more to the story than is shared in this first book, and I like an author with a long game.
-Lots of new items, traditions, customs, and ideas that are mentioned and then not given enough explanation.
-A whole history between various countries that isn’t given enough explanation to understand why there is a potential for more war, or why some people/cultures are automatically hated.
-A nemesis who has some wonky motivations- the motivations shift over the course of the book and most of the time none of them hold enough water for me to buy into their actions.
If you’ve read the book I’d love to hear from you about how you felt about this introduction to The Witchlands. And if you’ve read the second book, I’d be curious to know if, based on my review, you think I should continue on.