YA recommendations with lists, pictures, and frequent parentheticals.
Spoiler Rating: Low
If you're looking for magic, looming war, sexy princes/ship captains, and strong sister-friendships, but you're not too picky about sound logic, consistency, or worldbuilding, have I got a book for you.
Despite its numerous flaws (don't worry, I'll get there), I really enjoyed Truthwitch—so I'll try to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible.
On a continent ruled by three empires, some are born with a "witchery," a magical skill that sets them apart from others.
In the Witchlands, there are almost as many types of magic as there are ways to get in trouble—as two desperate young women know all too well.
Safiya is a Truthwitch, able to discern truth from lie. It's a powerful magic that many would kill to have on their side, especially amongst the nobility to which Safi was born. So Safi must keep her gift hidden, lest she be used as a pawn in the struggle between empires.
Iseult, a Threadwitch, can see the invisible ties that bind and entangle the lives around her—but she cannot see the bonds that touch her own heart. Her unlikely friendship with Safi has taken her from life as an outcast to one of reckless adventure, where she is a cool, wary balance to Safiya's hot-headed impulsiveness.
Safiya and Iseult just want to be free to live their own lives, but war is coming to the Witchlands. With the help of the cunning Prince Merik (a Windwitch and ship's captain) and the hindrance of a Bloodwitch bent on revenge, the friends must fight emperors, princes, and mercenaries alike, who will stop at nothing to get their hands on a Truthwitch.
The plot, in short: Safi and Iseult run for their lives.
Safi — a noblewoman (or domna) in a powerful empire, heir to her uncle's estate, but poor and wildly disinterested in doing the noblewoman thing. Big into conning people out of money (to purchase a new home), playing with swords, and Iseult.
Iseult — a failed/semi-incompetent Threadwitch who left her Nomatsi tribe to make a better life for herself elsewhere. (Nomatsi seem similar to our world's Roma, and are universally hated by other ethnic groups.) She's eternally bothered by how unThreadwitch-like her emotions are (which is to say, that she experiences emotions at all).
Merik — a sexy prince/sea captain, and temporary Admiral of his (dying?) father's navy. He's a sailor at heart, and probably would've been happy with his elder sister being their father's heir if she wasn't a cruel and reckless bitch. He's got a temper on him to match Safi's, so clearly they were destined.
Aeduan — a Carawan monk trained from zygotehood to be an elite fighter. Also a
bloodhound Bloodwitch, a super-rare witch type that gives him the ability to sniff out a person's magic type and personal scent, by which he can then hunt them down anywhere in the world. He's got the broody-murderer vibe going for him.
Lizzy, you'd love this so hard. Threadsiblings are friends bonded for life, and Truthwitch does a pretty great job of showing Safi and Iseult's mutual affection and support (and, to a lesser extent, the similar bond between Prince Merik and this Threadbrother, Kullen).
I especially loved seeing Safi threaten violence to protect Iseult—
—and Iseult threatening violence to protect Safi:
Who doesn't love a friendship that involves both balancing each other's flaws and a willingness to engage in bloodshed for each other's sake?
(That said, I would've liked more attention paid to Merik and Kullen's friendship. It didn't resonate with me quite a strongly as it should've, which led to some disappointingly bland scenes when [censored for spoilers] toward the end.)
(Also, I don't understand why Iseult kept the creepy dreams she starts having a secret from Safi. Their friendship is of the "we're in everything together" variety, and the dreams are hugely significant, as Iseult first suspects and later confirms; Iseult's hiding them from Safi struck me as weirdly out of character for her and their friendship.)
Whoops, didn't mean to start complaining here. Moving on.
I'm happy to inform you that Safi and Merik's romance has some great moments of both the snickering and the squeeing varieties, what with their rival tempers and excellent dance compatibility.
Even better, this wasn't a love-at-first sight thing. Their first impressions of each other aren't, uh, good, after which they spend most of their time fighting as they doggedly pursue their conflicting goals. There's physical attraction there from fairly early on, but emotions don't get involved until Safi starts changing as a person in ways that bring their goals into alignment.
I won't say this was the most (or even a particularly) convincing romance, but it was enjoyable enough to keep me anticipating their next scene together.
I've read a review or two criticizing the book's simple and repetitious plot: the women are in danger, so they run; they're in danger, so they run; they're in danger, so they run.
I was okay with this, because we're shown genuinely interesting hints of the greater conflict brewing behind the scenes (two thumbs up for that). This is just the first step in drawing Safi and Iseult into a continent-wide war, and as a first step it works okay.
I also loved how Iseult [censored for spoilers] with the future villain, and how Iseult and Safi are clearly the catalyst for incredible change, being [censored for spoilers] as they are. Ugh, Lizzy, it's awesome and you'd love it.
So why are Iseult and Safi on the run for
most the entire book? Because yes, they pissed off bloodhound Aeduan, but also because Safi's a Truthwitch, and Truthwitches—well—
That's all we're ever told about the danger Safi's abilities pose to her: that her power is "valuable" and "rare," and therefore politicians are willing to kill (her and others) to get their hands on it/prevent it from falling into their enemies' hands.
We're never told (a) exactly why her power is so "valuable," (b) how such a power has been used/abused in the past to make others deem it so dangerous that they'd kill a Truthwitch they can't control, and (c) why the "rare" Truthwitches are super valuable but the equally- (if not more-) "rare" Cursewitches and Bloodwitches aren't equally fought over/murdered.
Sorry, book, but I need more info than "she's a special magic snowflake, so her life's in danger of death-or-enslavement-by-monarch" if you're going to convince me that your premise is logically sound.
And is it just me, or does this premise—that knowing when someone is lying is such a powerful, valuable ability that heads of state will go into killing frenzies to possess or neutralize a Truthwitch—seem a little, oh, silly? I feel it suggests a naive understanding of politics. A Truthwitch present in any type of political setting would surely be laid low by the number of lies and half-truths and sly phrasings and careful omissions coming out of every single attendee's mouth.
And anyway, it'd be all too easy to circumvent an enemy monarch's Truthwitch's powers: just lie to your diplomat (or whoever) and not tell them it's a lie. The diplomat will speak for you, believing what they say is true. The Truthwitch will confirm that the diplomat isn't lying, the enemy monarch will believe the lie, and there. I solved your Truthwitch problem for you.
Now, perhaps if some long-ago king had intentionally spread rumors grossly exaggerating his Truthwitch's powers, and those rumors became accepted as the gold standard for Truthwitch abilities, I could see this book's premise working out. Sure, every monarch would go into a murder-frenzy to prevent their enemies from harnessing the power of a godlike being capable of confirming or denying the validity of any statement, claim, document, or unspoken thought.
But no. All anyone knows about Truthwitches is that they can tell if someone's lying. Which, again: what's the big deal? It can be a useful/harmful ability, sure, but it's not the earthshaking power the book wants me to think it is.
Unfortunately, my difficulty accepting the book's basic premise prevented me from taking the story's conflict as seriously as I'd have liked.
Oh, man. The insufficient explanations start on page one.
Safi and Iseult are planning to go full-on highwaymen on a carriage, hoping to steal back the money that was stolen from them. However:
They agree that their only means of escape is to sneak or fight their way through the guards to reach the ropes they've already set up on the cliff as their emergency escape route; they'll descend on the ropes, fall into the ocean, and swim to safety. Foolproof!
But, uh, why aren't they turning their back on the ocean and just running the hell away?
We're never told what the terrain is like behind them; is it a grassy slope? A forested slope? A rocky slope? Not much of a slope at all? Why on earth do they decide that fighting their way through soldiers, rappelling down a seventy-foot cliff, and swimming through rough ocean is their best shot at escaping when they could (presumably) just hightail it inland and circle back around to meet the road closer to the city?
Aaaaargh. I demand an explanation why the women don't take the obvious, logical escape route—an explanation that doesn't involve Because if they went that way, they wouldn't have fought bloodhound Aeduan and set the whole story in motion.
My first impression of this book wasn't exactly the best, let me tell you. And this is only the first example of several—but you get the point. I have questions, and I want them answered.
Just as aggravating as the general lack of explanations for things are the numerous inconsistencies. They weren't terrible mistakes (say, someone being killed in one scene, then reappearing alive later without comment) but nor were they superficial (like, a woman wearing blue pants one moment and wearing red pants the next); they were moderate mistakes that ruined the logic of some scenes, but not of the plot as a whole.
One inconsistency that I wonder will pop up in the rest of the series relates to Safi's Truthwitch abilities.
Early in the book, the narrator gives us some info about how rare Truthwitches are (very), how they were treated in the past (used and murdered by monarchs), and what their power consists of. The narrator phrases it very concisely:
Okay, so she can only discern lie or truth if when a person is in her immediate presence. Cool. But then why does her magic work with her history books—which, in case you weren't aware, aren't people?
So Safi was able to discern, merely by reading, that an (absent, unknown) author believed in what they wrote. This despite the narrator (and Safi) repeatedly making it clear that her power only works on people who are in Safi's physical presence. I mean, sure, Safi's still discovering the extent and limitations of her power, but inconsistencies like this give the impression that the author was the one still figuring out Safi's power as she wrote. And of course inconsistencies are to be expected in the writing process, but they have to be tidied up during the revision process—otherwise, you're left with a sloppy-feeling book and a grumpy Liam.
1. The worldbuilding felt weak and haphazard.
2. Iseult's and Aeduan's perspectives didn't hold my attention.
3. The Threadwitch idea is neat, but I felt that describing the threads solely by color was a huge missed opportunity. Why not also describe the threads' texture, sheen, number of strands per thread, how tightly or loosely or unevenly they're spun? "Her threads were gray with fear" is barely more evocative (or interesting) than "She was afraid." It'd be more vivid and engaging if those gray threads were described as thick and tightly-spun and slightly frayed, or whatever.
4. Safi and Merik's romance seemed to primarily involve falling (or rolling) on top of each other. Seriously, this happened four or five times.
I'd be okay with it happening once or twice, but seriously, book. This isn't the only way to create physical tension between your romantic leads. Try something new next time.
Despite my complaints, I really did enjoy Truthwitch, and I'll be eager to get my hands on its sequel (due out next year). I have high hopes for this series; let's see how it plays out.