TRUTHWITCH by Susan Dennard
ISBN 978-0-7653-7928-3, Tor Teen, HB, 416pp, USD$18.99/CAN$21.99. January 2016. Cover art by Scott Grimando.
I first heard of Truthwitch some five or six months ago, when Kate Elliott mentioned it as a forthcoming YA novel that did interesting things with female friendship and epic fantasy worldbuilding. When I received a review copy, I was vaguely interested — but to tell you the truth, I’ve been rather burned out on reading for a while now: I expected I’d have the same UGH WORK GO AWAY reaction to it that I’ve been having to the vast majority of fiction.
This was, astonishingly, not to be the case.
Truthwitch opens with a caper: a highway robbery about to go horribly wrong. Safiya and Iseult are young women living in Veňaza City, playing in high-stakes card games and getting up to trouble — like committing highway robbery to avenge themselves on the handsome young man who made off with Safiya’s winnings. Unfortunately, they target the wrong carriage and run afoul of a guildmaster and his hired Bloodwitch… and that’s only the start of their problems.
Safiya is a Truthwitch, able to tell truth from lies. (At least, what people believe to be truth.) She keeps her abilities secret, because Truthwitches are rare and much sought-after by rulers, and Safiya, an impoverished noblewoman who doesn’t want the responsibilities of her position, has absolutely no desire to be turned into a useful prisoner. Iseult is a Threadwitch, who can see the threads that bind people together, the patterns in the world — and also a member of a despised social minority, the Nomatsi, a people who have no legal rights. And Iseult’s people have all but officially cast her out.
Iseult and Safiya are inseparable friends, as close as sisters: Iseult’s steadiness compensates for Safiya’s impulsiveness, and Safiya’s class and connections provide protection for Iseult. They have a strong emotional bond, but one that is shortly to be tested by politics and the pursuit of that Bloodwitch — a young man whose ultimate loyalties are something of a open question.
There has been a long peace between three major powers, and now that peace is coming to an end. Safiya’s uncle is engaged in some plot, which involves her betrothal to an emperor and then her escape by way of a ship belonging to Prince Merik, a young man whose nation suffered terribly in the last war and whose people are on the verge of starvation.
It is all caper. Very exciting caper, from then on, including pursuit and politics and sea serpents and some gonzo magical fight sequences. The pace is breakneck, with the characteristic first-novel trick of cramming as much stuff as possible in while rarely slowing down enough to allow its significance to sink in.
Except for the significance of Boyfriend. The narrative definitely pairs Prince Merik off with Safiya, and it is strongly implied that the Bloodwitch (Aeduan is his name) is supposed to be seen in the light of a potential future romantic interest for Iseult — although their relationship consists of just barely not killing each other up until the point where he saves her life.
I’ve been chewing over the problems I have with this book for a few days. It’s fun, and it has solid themes, and it’s not slight, exactly, so much as scattered. It opens with the promise of a caper novel: best friends (female friends), cardsharps and highway robbers, and some of my definite level of irk with it may be a result of how those early expectations were disappointed.
One of my problems with Truthwitch is that it makes unavoidably obvious one of the issues I have with a lot of young adult SFF, which is the centrality of heterosexual romance. There’s nothing wrong with romance. But this is a book where the core established emotional relationship is between two women — friends-like-sisters — and where one of the major themes concerns both of them discovering — owning — their own significance and ability to make choices that affect other people. And the presence of Boyfriend, for me, is a distracting sideshow from the coming-of-age narrative.
It is a sad truth, it seems, than in YA one can have Boys without Girls, but where there is a Girl, the general rule is that there must be a Boy.
Prince Merik is the Responsible One. Aeduan is the Dangerous One Who Might Come Good. But Merik berates Safiya with her irresponsibility, and Aeduan verges on unheathily obsessed with, alternately, Safiya and Iseult (for revenge or politics and eventually, for themselves). Being berated by the handsome prince, it seems, causes Safiya to undergo Personal Growth and make some frankly large sacrifices for Merik and his people.
I might have enjoyed the attraction-plot between Merik and Safiya a lot more if it hadn’t included an incident in which Merik locks Safiya in irons for dealing with the enemy to heal a badly-wounded Iseult. One does not exactly buy Safiya’s attraction and loyalty to Merik after that: the whole bondage thing seems like a large step to overlook.
But all the bits of the novel that don’t have boyfriend in them are really fun. Some excellent magical fight sequences! Epic fantasy worldbuilding that’s actually making an effort to use that epic depth of field! Female friendship! Lots of women around doing interesting things!
I’m just a little disappointed, because the emotional beats of the whole boyfriend plotlines are fairly predictable — and thus not very interesting — while the deep friendship between the two girls, and their relationship to the world, is something that we don’t see a lot in SFF. Their respective social statuses and backgrounds are different to each other, and there’s just enough there to tease me with the story the author’s not interested in telling: how these two, this unbreakable pair, interact with each other and a world that sees one of them as more human than the other.
On the other hand, this is definitely a book that’s easy to read, and easy to enjoy while reading. That’s a significant set of points in its favour, by me.
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