Safiya is a Truthwitch—she can tell between lies and the truth, and there hasn’t been a witch with her ability in a century or more in the Witchlands. She’s kept her ability hidden from most, aware that she can forcibly be made a pawn in the political games being played out by the noble society she was born into, with a twenty year peace treaty between three empires having nearly run its course. What will the future hold for this magic infused world? Safi isn’t interested—she wants to live her own life with her Threadsister Iseult in Susan Dennard’s Truthwitch.
Iseult is a Threadwitch, powerful in her own right. Iseult and Safi have grown up together under the tutelage of men who have taught them well and trained them to defend themselves, but the girls appear to get in a fair bit of trouble regardless, which is why, when we meet them, they are on the run.
But what starts off as a scrape to do with a card game heist gone wrong, ends up a larger, more dangerous situation when Safi, unwillingly, unwittingly, can not avoid the family she has been born into, nor can she avoid their political intrigues. Before she knows what’s happening, she and Iseult are escaping both the Emperor and a Bloodwitch named Aeduan who seems to know of her secret power and has been hired to hunt her down. Prince Merik, a Windwitch whom Safi first encounters
at a dance, has been tasked with delivering her to safety, but Safi isn’t one to be handled like a passive package, especially when her Threadsister Iseult is hurt and in need of help that cannot be found on Merik’s ship. Merik, meanwhile, is also trying to avoid all out war, though his sister does not agree with his less aggressive plans for their empire. She has very different ideas about how to deal with imperialism—diplomacy isn’t her strong suit. ‘…Have you forgotten what the empires did to our home?’ she asks Merik. ‘The Great War ended for them, but not for us. The least we can do is pay back the empires in kind—starting with a bit of noble piracy.’
So yes, there is plenty of fast paced action, politics, adventure on the high seas, potential romance and thrills, spill and chills galore. The plot ticks along at a steady speed, the dialogue is full of banter and wit, and there are some nice little set ups for future reveals, too. From the very start, the reader is thrust deep into a complicated world of elemental magic, and introduced to a lot of characters, each of whom have varying motives and reasons for doing what they’re doing but not all of whom end up being important in the long run. The magic of this world is very specific and individual, and the worldbuilding, as far as the magic is concerned, requires an immediate suspension of disbelief to accept, because no great detail is given as to how it works. It’s magic, and that is enough. Seeing ‘threads’ for example, as Iseult does, allows her to be a sort of empath to people’s emotions. Some of the elemental magic is more straightforward—Merik’s windwitchery allows him to control wind, letting him ‘fly’, for example. Aeduan’s bloodwitchery allows him to smell, identify and track someone by their blood. Safi’s truthwitchery is quite literally a lie detector.
Why are there so many specific sorts of magical abilities? Why are only some people in possession of these powers? Even assuming that this is just the fabric of a fantasy world, one may still be left wondering if certain people having certain powers is arbitrary or not. Does their power define who they become? Does it limit them, push them into certain roles, help them along their way or let them grow towards a certain path? Suspension of disbelief doesn’t come entirely smoothly at first, but once you accept the fabric of the world to be what it is, there are fewer wrinkles left in the narrative.
The relationship between Safi and Iseult is a strong, positive aspect of the story. They come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, both have been educated and trained and their bond is a very strong one—they are ‘Threadsisters’ and though what this actually means goes unexplained at the start, it is clear that they are deeply connected. Very unlike each other, they appear to be two halves of a whole, a balanced yin-yang relationship at play, something which is teased at along the way and will probably play out during the course of the series. It’s always refreshing to read of strong female friendships, and Safi and Iseult’s won’t disappoint any readers of YA fantasy looking for a narrative about sisterhood and loyalty.
Why then, may some readers have trouble engaging at a deeper level with the story? It’s fun, and it checks all the boxes. It does many things correctly and well. As far conventional YA fantasy fiction is concerned, Truthwitch stands firm within the genre with plenty of high-powered blurbs to boot. The world it is set in seems loosely European (possibly eastern European?) with Iseult being ‘Nomatsi’ with ‘pale Nomatsi skin…[and] angled Nomatsi eyes’, a nomadic tribe that perhaps is based on the Romani people, perhaps not. Either way, the cast appears to be safely nondescript in their ethnicity, so much so that the cover too features a standard, conventionally pretty blonde young woman with weapons. This just solidifies the ground that Truthwitch stands on—there isn’t going to be any new ground broken here, though there’s nothing wrong with walking on familiar paths too, if you find them well laid out and entertaining, which plenty of readers will.
Mahvesh loves dystopian fiction & appropriately lives in Karachi, Pakistan. She writes about stories & interviews writers the Tor.com podcast Midnight in Karachi when not wasting much too much time on Twitter.