I didn’t have high expectations for this book, though the beautiful cover immediately grabbed me. But it has blown me away – this is my favourite YA fantasy in quite a while. It is insightful, smart, innovative, and well written. I can’t tell you how pleased I am to have found it. From the ending it seems there will be sequels, and I am looking forward to following more of this story.
Witchlanders very much has a classic fantasy feel to it. There is magic, peasant technology, and age-old enemies. Ryder is a young man trying to hold his family together following his father’s death. His mother’s increasingly erratic behaviour and dependence on Maiden’s woe – a flower that gives the power of prophesy, but is addictive and poisonous – is destroying the family balance. When she foresees terrible events, Ryder refuses to believe in her or the magic of the witches who claim to protect his people.
The second point of view is the voice of Falpian, a young man sent into exile along the border by his disappointed father. Falpian is one of the Baen, the old enemy of Ryder’s people. The Baen’s magic is in song, though Falpian seems to have no skill in this art. As Ryder and Falpian draw closer, an intangible connection between the would-be enemies grows stronger, and becomes a powerful bond that neither expected to find.
I won’t give away any more of the plot – but the themes of this book are incredible. The brutality of war; the nature of difference, prejudice and ignorance; the necessity of challenging those in power who would lead without question; the subjugation of women; the importance of faith; and the connection of living things are all strong themes running through this book.
Witchlanders does what fantasy and sci-fi should do best – take us somewhere unfamiliar to remind us of our own world and its problems. Unlike many YA fantasies that I have read, it doesn’t just skim the surface of magic/action/adventure – it digs deep and poses questions for the reader. Here are two quotes that stopped me in my tracks:
“‘No,’ he said. ‘He is not on our side. But Skyla, are we only allowed to care about people who are on our side?'”
“Do you think anyone is born a killer? Do you think I was? Trust me, I know what I’m asking. An assassin’s first murder is himself. He kills the man he was.”
[My apologies to Simon and Schuster – I’m not actually checking these quotes against the finished manuscript as I’m supposed to. I’ll just have to hope they’re in the finished copy!]
Added to the complexity of ideas is the complexity of the characters. Not only are the two main characters well-drawn, they have very conflicted but believable loyalties and impulses. And the range of other character is satisfying. Most are a mix of bad and good: some intent on following orders; others follow an inner sense of what is right or a loyalty to a particular loved one; others are wrong-headed and misguided, but again are doing what their experience and world view tells them is right. I don’t think anyone is truly evil, though many evil actions are performed. Nor does everyone gets what they deserve – innocent or kind people are harmed and some awful people are never punished. Some readers may find this frustrating; some might see it as simply an open door for a sequel (which I’m sure it is); I again found it a nice reflection on the unfairness of life and the unique ability of those in power to stay in power whatever their actions.
Though I clearly loved it, I recognize that Witchlanders is not for everyone. It is high fantasy (though there are no dwarves or elves), and there is almost no hint of a love story. Most won’t have the same reaction as me, and might experience only luke-warm enjoyment. That said, I think the action and voices are strong enough to interest most people who are well-disposed to fantasy. I sincerely hope that many people do give it a try, and that it is not lost or neglected in the mass of dystopian fiction making its way through the market right now. Lena Coakley has created a gem, and it deserves a few moments to shine.