Witchlanders by Lena Coakley
“We live between the two great silences: the silence that existed before the world began, and the silence that waits for us at the end of all things.”
I haven’t read such a thoroughly realized, well-executed high fantasy YA novel since Fire, by Kristen Cashore. The story of the Witchlanders and the Baens and their clashing beliefs is completely absorbing, and masterfully executed plot twists make the adventures of the two main characters a thrilling, edge-of-your-seat read.
Ryder, the son of a hicca farmer and a former witch, doesn’t believe in the power of the mountain witches like the rest of his village, or in the hefty tithes he has to pay them. After the death of his father, it’s more difficult than ever to keep the farm afloat and the family together. And it doesn’t help that his mother has picked up her old witch’s habit of throwing bones again, or that she’s developed a dangerous addiction to maiden’s woe, the dark flowering hallucinogenic plant that aids witches in achieving their bone-throwing visions. So when his mother predicts an assassin coming to wreak havoc on the Witchlanders, he and the ruling red witches disregard her warnings, chalking her visions up to mental illness. Until a monstrous attack on the village proves she may not have been so crazy after all.
Falpian, a Baen of noble birth, is in exile. He’s been brought to the edge of the Baen/Witchlander border to mourn his twin brother, and supposed partner in song-magic. Falpian and Farien have long been a disappointment to their father, who expected great things from their fortunate status as twins, which usually portends great magical abilities. No matter how hard he and his brother trained, they could not master even simple magic. So when Falpian is given a scroll detailing a mission from his father and is instructed not to open it for fifty days, he’s thrilled to finally serve a purpose to the father he longs to impress. But the mission may not be quite what he expected.
To say much more would ruin the pleasure of unraveling the plot threads and perpetually shifting expectations in the story as these two characters and their long-held beliefs and prejudices clash. So I’ll just list a few of my favorite features of Witchlanders:
Richly-realized male main characters written by a woman.
It was so much fun getting inside the heads of the dueling voices of the Witchlander Ryder, and the Baen Falpian. Each had unique desires, weaknesses, and moral ambiguities to deal with, and I strongly empathized with both of them, experiencing all the heartbreak, wonder, fear, and courage they felt as their stories played out. It’s incredibly impressive to me that these three-dimensional characters felt so authentic and tangible via third person narration (I feel like I was inside their heads in an immediate way usually only afforded by first person narration) and perhaps slightly more impressive that they were scribbled into existence by a female.
Terrifying scenes featuring multiple nightmares/phobias.
Swarms of spiders, claustrophic catacombs of rotting bodies, and giant regenerating gormy men make the pages turn quickly as you try to stop your skin from crawling. If you suffer from arachnophobia, you can absolutely use this book for total immersion therapy (or you can just freak out).
What makes this novel a success is the author’s ability to write each character’s perspective so convincingly, and to relate a complex and long-running history without ever distracting from the exciting plot. The concept of info-dumping doesn’t exist in this novel. Rather than seeing giant globs of paint, or even individual brush strokes, you just see this beautifully rendered picture, and you don’t quite remember or care how you came to know it so fully, but you’re mesmerized by it. The descriptions of the singing magic in particular are beautifully tense and cinematic.
A thought-provoking story with heart.
This story could have easily been simplified into a magical chosen one(s) tale, and it would have been frivolous and escapist fun. Through narrative choices and the tremendous heart of the main characters, it boldly attacks racial tensions, religious differences, addiction, and the hidden violence and atrocities of war that are so often coupled with hatemongering lies that fan its flames. As the main characters come to realize their worlds differ greatly from what they’ve each been led to believe, we’re challenged to connect the same dots for ourselves in our own lives.
Overall, it is an action-packed, beautifully-written, wise read that will inspire and delight.
Side note - the only criticism I have at all for Witchlanders is aimed at the editor/cover designer: the synopsis and cover elicit the expectation of a strong female perspective, or at least a romance. While the cover is beautiful, I feel like the character it represents, Aata’s Right Hand, is tertiary. If there is a sequel (and there BETTER BE, this is a fantastic story that ends on such an exciting note) I hope the designers have the courage to package it more appropriately. I can’t speak for everyone, but in my opinion, book-buying isn’t like kindergarten: female readers don’t think male MC’s have cooties!