Book Review : Witchshadow

This review contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.
Book Review : WitchshadowWitchshadow (The Witchlands, #4) by Susan Dennard
Published by Tor Teen on June 22nd 2021
Genres: Fantasy, Fantasy & Magic, Girls & Women, LGBTQ, Young Adult
Pages: 464
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two-stars

Susan Dennard's New York Times bestselling, young adult epic fantasy Witchlands series continues with Witchshadow, the story of the Threadwitch Iseult.
War has come to the Witchlands . . . and nothing will be the same again.
Iseult has found her heartsister Safi at last, but their reunion is brief. For Iseult to stay alive, she must flee Cartorra while Safi remains. And though Iseult has plans to save her friend, they will require her to summon magic more dangerous than anything she has ever faced before.
Meanwhile, the Bloodwitch Aeduan is beset by forces he cannot understand. And Vivia—rightful queen of Nubrevna—finds herself without a crown or home.
As villains from legend reawaken across the Witchlands, only the mythical Cahr Awen can stop the gathering war. Iseult could embrace this power and heal the land, but first she must choose on which side of the shadows her destiny will lie.

It pains me to admit this, but Witchshadow was my least favorite of all the books in The Witchlands series so far. Perhaps I was just too hyped for Iseult’s entry in the series and was simply cruising for disappointment. Whatever the case, I found Witchshadow to be a bit of an inconsistent and confusing mess with a lot of wasted opportunities. Though I did like the overall darker tone of this novel and the fact that characters were faced with higher stakes than ever, I found that Witchshadow actually made me like Isuelt, my favorite character in the series, less.

 

I think one of the biggest disservices that Witchshadow does to itself is starting in the middle of the story and flashing back to prior events that happened where Bloodwitch left off. Some of the most exciting events of this novel happen during these flashbacks and also serve as the impetus for many of the actions of the characters going forward, and it’s a shame that these events are designated to the background. Plus, Witchshadow just can’t seem to keep these two timelines consistent. Countless times in the past, Iseult decides to initiate AND complete, to be the right hand, AND the left hand, and to throw off her fears regarding her powers and to leave behind her dedication to stasis, killing people with her Puppeteer powers and fearlessly striding ahead, only to almost immediately and repeatedly abandon her new outlook.

 

She has several of these “aha!” moments where everything is clear and she knows what she has to do, relying on only herself, not her Threadsister or Aeduan to move forward. Then the next second, she’s afraid again, fearing herself a monster, sinking back into her attempts at stasis and then the entire transformation process repeats all over again. It doesn’t feel like insecurity or understandable human fear, it feels like whiplash. I honestly have loved Iseult the most out of all the characters in The Witchlands, even over Aeduan, but found I liked her less after reading Witchshadow. I had looked forward to her coming into her own, embracing her powers, facing Esme, Corlant, and her mother’s preconceived notions of what she should be, but I found that all of these instances fell flat for me and that Iseult felt weaker than ever as a character. I also couldn’t help but to feel that Iseult had never blatantly thought of herself as a monster before either, simply viewing herself as more of a black sheep, who didn’t fit in as a Nomatsi or Threadwitch, but was too Nomatsi to fit in elsewhere. So I was surprised that Witchshadow took her down this path of viewing herself as a monster, exactly like Aeduan’s journey. For someone who is so accepting of Aeduan’s supposed monstrosity, you’d think she wouldn’t see her own powers as one.

 

“She will never be like her Threadsister. She will always be trapped in shadows.”

 

I also thought it was a shame that Iseult was not forced to deal with her frightening foil, the original Puppeteer known as Esme. I think that a big part of Iseult’s fear of her new power was her very valid concern that she would end up being someone like Esme, who cleaves people left and right, and has no problem torturing or killing to get what she wants. After Merik saved Esme’s life by putting her in the Origin Well in Windwitch, I figured that Esme would serve some greater purpose, maybe saving Iseult by sacrificing herself for her only friend. This sort of happens, in a very anticlimactic way, as Esme is turned into a weasel, of all things, and guides Iseult on her journey. As weasels are incapable of doing major bodily harm, Iseult just regards Esme as harmless, cuddling up to her and communicating with her through mental images. Yes, sometimes Esme suggests rather violent solutions to problems, but there’s really no struggle at all between these two powerful and strong-willed women, which was a pretty big letdown, as the series really seemed to be building towards a major conflict or showdown between them.

 

“We are just alike, she used to tell Iseult. We must weave Threads when we can—and break them when we have to. Iseult had always shied away from those words. She had denied them and fought them and pretended they were not true. She was not like Esme; she was not a Puppeteer.”

 

What is even weirder, is that Esme seems perfectly content to just remain a weasel and to help Iseult, which seems completely out of character with the bloodthirsty woman I’ve read about in the rest of the series. I don’t know how I am supposed to believe that Esme doesn’t want to take over Iseult’s body or something, or at the very least, take over another body that is not a weasel. I felt that Esme’s transformation was a pretty big wasted opportunity of having Iseult and Esme alone. Iseult didn’t have to take any hard looks at Esme and herself in comparison, or make any tough choices, everything just magically worked out, simply because Esme was a weasel and lost mostly her entire personality in the process. I can’t help but to be disappointed that there wasn’t a single confrontation between them and was stumped that Esme’s companionship was just brushed off by Iseult saying:

 

“‘Evil is not the enemy,’” Iseult quoted as she stepped into the cold dawn. “‘For without it, there can be no good. Chaos, however, is unstoppable.’”

 

Surprisingly, my favorite perspective of Witchshadow was by far that of Safi’s, who is usually up there with Merik as one of my least favorite characters of the series. At the end of Bloodwitch, Safi is absolutely determined, for some reason, to save her Uncle Eron, whom she has despised for her entire life, and sets off to wed herself to Emperor Heinrick of Cartorra in order to do so. As always things do not go quite according to plan, and Safi ends up as the Empress, among other things, and Iseult is forced to flee for her life. I really enjoyed Safi’s scheming to free herself of Emperor Heinrick’s clutches, and how she allies herself with the mysterious Prince Leopold and the Hell Bards in order to do so.

 

I honestly found Safi to be more level headed than ever before in the series and was struck by her determination and grit to move forward. She has really had enough of everyone making decisions for her and doesn’t take no for an answer. I also enjoyed her contentious relationship with Leopold, and how she dictates their alliance moving forward. It is obvious Safi is done being anyone’s tool, and I wish the Iseult of this novel had half her presence of mind. I only wish Witchshadow had spent more time on Safi’s storyline, in both the past and present timelines of the novel, as I couldn’t help but feel it was underutilized. I honestly think that each of these novels could be broken up into whole books, with less of a breakneck speed. And in the case of Witchshadow, I think an entire book could have easily dealt with Iseult and Safi’s time at the Cartorran court, and Safi’s marriage to Heinrick, before moving on.

 

But by far far my biggest peeve of Witchshadow is everything pertaining to the Paladins and their reincarnations. The previous entry in the series, Bloodwitch, ended on a super empowering note for Aeduan, demonstrated by the following quote, “He was a tool no longer. He was a blade no longer to be wielded by others or brandished by Lady Fate. He was Aeduan. Just Aeduan, and he could choose whatever life he wanted. He could go wherever his will might lead.” So imagine my absolute horror and frustration when I found out that Aeduan was possessed by a freaking Paladin, off page of both Bloodwitch and Witchshadow. This possession, for lack of a better term, destroyed not only his free will and ability to act, but also made him work against Owl and Iseult, the people that were the catalysts for his entire journey as a character and development as a person, and not the monster he thought it was.

 

I was pretty livid at this entire plotline, which singlehandedly undid all of the character work for Aeduan in Bloodwitch to the point of feeling like a retcon. For instance, at the end of Bloodwitch, Iseult saves Aeduan’s life by placing him in an Origin Well, which entirely heals him. He is grateful for this second chance at life and his ability to move forward on his own terms in Bloodwitch. But in Witchshadow, we get a quick glossed over look that basically has Aeduan thinking, “something isn’t right” and Aeduan is then, we assume, taken over by a Paladin. This seems completely inconsistent to how Bloodwitch ended, when he was happily casting off his former life and focusing of reuniting with Iseult and Owl, and like this ending of the previous novel was changed! Frankly, I also really don’t understand how this soul transference or reincarnation happens. Both Kullen and Stix become a Paladin without dipping their toes in an Origin Well, but both Evrane and Aeduan apparently get possessed by being healed from mortal injuries in the Well sometime off page. Both Safi and Iseult have been healed in Origin Wells multiple times and never get the souls of previous Cahr Awhens or anything similar taking over their bodies and minds, so I can’t help but feel this is somewhat of a plot hole. Especially since the glass and blade, which seemingly sparked Kullen and Stix’s transformation, seem to only allow others to view Paladins or to kill them:

 

“The glass allowed a person to find Paladins, to see which humans carried more than a single soul inside them. And the blade could kill a Paladin, ending their reincarnation—silencing their multiple souls—forever.”

 

What’s worse than these strange transformations, however, is that this possession of Aeduan was an affront to his work to find his own wants and needs and to cast off the chains of his past and to place what he wanted, his life with Iseult and Owl, first. He had already done the emotional work to accept his own feelings and relationship with Iseult, there was absolutely no reason to make him fight to reach them again and to overpower his oppressor with his emotions for them. Plus, Aeduan and Iseult were already separated at the end of Bloodwitch, which forced Iseult to act on her own once more and to face her own powers and identity at last. It would have been much more powerful if Aeduan had consciously fought every step of the way to get back to Iseult and Owl, maybe even further rejecting his father in the process. But instead, one of the best characters of the series, if not the best, was completely sidelined for this superfluous drama that not only stymies his personal growth, but forces him to relieve what he’s already accomplished.

 

Similarly, I was less than pleased by Stix’s transformation into a Paladin. Witchshadow took a powerful Waterwitch, capable first mate and advisor to a future queen, and made her completely impulsive and foolhardy. She never once listens to Ryber, who has the biggest idea of what in the heck is going on with all of this Paladin nonsense, and spends most of the book trying to fight in a Colosseum and freeing slaves for no more complex of a reason other than that slavery is bad. While this is obviously noble and all, Stix never stops to consider the consequences of her actions, and I honestly would have given up reading from her perspective in a heartbeat. I don’t understand why Ryber, the main protagonist of Sightwitch, and a very capable person, doesn’t get her own perspective instead and is relegated to a constantly ignored side character. I was also similarly confused by the fact that both Stix and Viva suddenly refer to each other as Threadsisters, which has never happened in any of the other books previously. In the past, they referred to each other as childhood friends, captains, best friends, Queen, and First Mate, but never Threadsister. I knew immediately when this Threadsister bomb was dropped that Stix was going to be friend-zoned by Vivia in favor of a relationship with Vaness. It’s not subtle, but it’s exactly what happens.

 

“It used to be Stix opening that door for her. And Stix taking her commands. But Stix had disappeared a month and a half ago, and though Cam had explained a hundred times—backward and forward and every direction Vivia had demanded—that her former first mate and Threadsister was inside a mountain in the Sirmayans … that she’d had memories that were not her own and was now with a Sightwitch named Ryber … None of it had ever made any sense.”

 

Honestly, it’s hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that Vivia’s romance with Stix is over before it ever really begins. For both of Windwitch and Bloodwitch, Vivia was pretty darn obsessed with Stix, constantly searching for her or noting how much she missed her friend for whom she harbored feelings. Though I got the hint that Vivia and Vaness may be going down a romantic road in the future, Witchshadow kind of slaps me in the face with the two, making it seem like Stix remaining distant from Vivia is the only way she can carry out her true duty as a Paladin. Apparently this duty now requires all of these reborn entities, including Stix, to watch over the leader of their respective countries, something which has only been mentioned in passing in previous novels, even Sightwitch. Likewise, Witchshadow has a handy foretelling in hand to predict that Vaness and Viva will unite their nations as married rulers, and that it is the only way for Viva will reach her full potential as the Queen Stix always wanted her to become. So in one fell swoop, Stix is completely out of the picture forever with very little drama, a new job, and a conveniently timed prophecy. I also can’t help but to predict that this marriage between Vaness and Vivia means Merik will end up wed to Safi’s Empress and rule Cartorra with her, especially after Cam says:

 

“Merik wanted to lead Nubrevna, and I think he will make a good king. One day. But you make a good queen now, and wherever you lead us, I’ll stand beside you.”

 

I find that I really just don’t care for the direction the series is going in with the Paladins. Making a lot of the major characters in the book a Paladin reborn is super confusing, as most of these Paladins like to pretend that they aren’t the Paladin that they actually are. And if that weren’t puzzling enough, I also couldn’t keep all of the Paladins straight, even with having reread the entire series in the weeks leading up to the release of Witchshadow. I also just think it’s not the best narrative choice to make so many characters reincarnated Paladin because this often means that these characters aren’t responsible for their own actions as their past lives take over their bodies. And this is on top of other characters, who are magically noosed by Emperor Heinrick, who also aren’t in control of their own actions and characters who are controlled by Iseult’s Puppeteer powers and also have no free will.

 

That means tons of people are walking around betraying each other, or otherwise wounding one another, and everyone has to forgive them, because it wasn’t actually them piloting their own bodies. Somehow, everyone seems to just get over these wrongs committed by their friends and immediately moves on too, without any significant leftover trauma. It is also not lost on me that all of the characters in this series are now Paladins, Cahr Awhens, the sole Truthwitch, a Hell Bard, a Puppeteer, Well-Chosen, an Empress, a Queen, a Prince, the last Sightwitch, the only Bloodwitch, a General, a Crown Prince, or something else special. There is no longer a single average main character in the entire series. It’s almost like they’re all Mary Sues–a term I typically hate, but sadly and entirely fits the bill here.

 

Unfortunately, I just found Witchshadow to be a confused novel and plagued with inconsistencies, and as a result, lost sight of its focus and many opportunities for stronger storytelling. It’s especially telling that I found Iseult to be less logical than Safi in this novel, and that I couldn’t keep all of the Paladins straight despite rereading the entire series before picking up Witchshadow. I really could’ve used some sort of chart or appendix to help me out here with everyone’s new designations or reincarnations, because sadly, I don’t think the Paladin thing is going away any time soon. I’m still looking forward to seeing how The Witchlands series comes to a conclusion, but I definitely will go into that novel with lowered expectations.

two-stars
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Book Review : Witchshadow - Blogging with Dragons

Posted June 28, 2021 in Book Reviews, Fantasy, Young Adult

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2 responses to “Book Review : Witchshadow

  1. Wejdan

    I would like to know since I there was so much time in between the books, what happened to Prince Merrick is he in the story???

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