Hello Dear Readers! Monday again, and today I bring you a review of another fantastic book (I'm having a really great reading streak lately): WITCHLANDERS by Lena Coakley
High in their mountain covens, red witches pray to the Goddess, protecting the Witchlands by throwing the bones and foretelling the future.
It’s all a fake.
At least, that’s what Ryder thinks. He doubts the witches really deserve their tithes—one quarter of all the crops his village can produce. And even if they can predict the future, what danger is there to foretell, now that his people’s old enemy, the Baen, has been defeated?
But when a terrifying new magic threatens both his village and the coven, Ryder must confront the beautiful and silent witch who holds all the secrets. Everything he’s ever believed about witches, the Baen, magic and about himself will change, when he discovers that the prophecies he’s always scorned—
Are about him.
Firstly I have to say that although that synopsis above sounds really cool, it bears very little resemblance to the book I read. I'm going to take a wild guess that it was not written by the author of this book, but by someone who was (in a well-meaning sort of way) trying to make the book appeal to the widest possible audience by giving the impression that the book is a traditional high fantasy with the character of Ryder as The Chosen One and a romance with that 'beautiful and silent witch'. Perhaps part of the same team that put a wistful looking, long-haired girl on the cover in the style of a paranormal romance, when there is, in fact, no female viewpoint character?
In any case, Lena Coakley's book is far from a traditional high fantasy, and nothing like a paranormal romance. And thank God for that!
In fact the character of Ryder is one of two narrators in Witchlanders, and the other isn't the witch of the synopsis, but Falpian, a boy of the Baen, the historical enemy of Ryder's Witchlander people. Neither of them precisely fits within the heroic stereotype of The Chosen One.
Ryder dreams of leaving the hardscrabble drudgery of his parent's border farm and going to sea, but when his father unexpectedly dies, he's forced to stay at home and keep the farm going, driven by a curmudgeonly sense of responsibility that doesn't really conceal his deep love for his eccentric, crumbling mother and effervescent younger sisters. He pooh-poohs his mother's bone-casting and resents the high-handed witches who serve as religious and political leaders from their mountain fastness. And he struggles to deal with his mother's increasingly erratic behaviour as she falls deeper and deeper into her dependency on ingesting hallucinagenic flowers.
Falpian is a sensitive, pampered young man who is sent to live alone in a tiny cottage on the Baen border during the winter of the story by his father, as part of the traditional mourning period for his twin brother, who recently drowned at sea. He's fighting not only his own loss but the despair of knowing that his father despises him for failing to inherit the war-like 'singing magic' that supposedly runs in their family. He wants nothing more than to see his father look at him with pride again, and when the man escorting him to the cottage gives him a special scroll which he is to open after fifty days, he believes he has been offered the chance to complete a mission which will win him his father's respect.
This pair are opposites in every way, from their appearance to their religious views to their family backgrounds. By every rule of both their societies, by everything either of them has ever been taught, they are destined to be bitter enemies. And they are. But they are also fated to form a friendship which will endanger and save both their lives, bring them closer than brothers, and thrust them into experiences that no one else alive can understand.
Lena Coakley's command of language in this novel is breathtaking. She narrates both viewpoint characters in a close third person, unspooling the essence of their souls onto the page with seemingly effortless skill that never resorts to awkward info-dumping, and creating a pair of voices which are utterly distinct, even as Ryder and Falpian's different worlds collide. So deeply enmeshed in their emotions did I feel that when I came to write this review, I had to go back and check that I wasn't imagining that the story had been in third person, because normally only first person creates that kind of an empathetic bond for me.
Witchlanders is a daring story. It deals deftly with themes of religious and racial prejudice. It takes on the horrors of war and the effect that these can have on the survivors even among the victors. It looks at the more personal tragedies of ingrained misogyny, addiction and self-deception within families. It offers no easy answers. It focuses not on any traditional romantic relationship but on the deep, brotherly love and respect that grows up between two young men despite the fact that each of them is working to preserve their own people, even at the expense of the other.
Given the trends in the current YA market, I'm delighted that a publisher was willing to take a risk on such an unconventional book, one that defies categorisation and which doesn't offer a High Concept hook. But I can see why. No editor with a soul could have passed up such a beautifully written, perfectly characterised, masterfully plotted book when it happened across their desk. Witchlanders is good enough that it doesn't HAVE to fit neatly into a genre or sub-genre. It strides confidently past them and makes a space for itself.
It's well known that I'm not a fan of cliff-hanger endings, and I suppose that some people might term the open-ended conclusion of this novel a bit...unresolved. It's clear that the Witchlander and Baen people both face uncertain futures, and that none of the characters we've grown to love are necessarily safe. I really hope that the author continues the story she has begun in Witchlanders with a sequel or even two. But even if she doesn't, after the unexpected and profound emotional experience of reading this book, it seems ungrateful not to be perfectly satisfied.