Marzie's Reviews > The Black Witch

The Black Witch by Laurie Forest
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it was amazing

The Black Witch is a YA novel that tries, via fantasy, to tackle some difficult but vital topics in a way that should make young people think about what they have been taught, what they've read, what they think they know about other people. It's garnered quite a bit of criticism for its display of sexism, racism, and I predict as the series moves forward to the second Elloren novel, it will get slammed because of overt genocide. What I'm not sure I understand is how you could possibly teach people about the evils of these things without letting them feel the impact of them, which is exactly what Forest has tried to do, with fair success, in this book.

We are introduced to Elloren Gardner, a middle child, orphaned by her parents' mysterious and untimely death, raised with her brothers Rafe and Trystan by their loving uncle, Edwin. She is the seventeen-year-old granddaughter of a powerful Mage, Carnissa Gardner, The Black Witch, who was the savior of the Gardnerian people during the Realm Wars. Carnissa Gardner, a rare female magic user, freed her people from the abuse thrust upon them by the Kelts and, with a vengeance, re-secured the Magedom of Gardneria, a region of Erthia in with access to the sea and poised between Lupine tribes and Keltania. Gardneria had its origins with Carnissa's several-generations-back grandfather, Styvius, who wrested the Gardnerian lands from Keltania, along the way becoming a religious zealot. Denying his racial origins (spoilers) he created an "alternate facts" version of the Keltic holy book in which the Gardnerians were the First Children of Erthia and are racially pure. They dress modestly in severe black and have strict religious observances. But back to our protagonist. Elloren's bloodline is impeccable, so it's rather sad that she appears to have no Mage power. But what she does have, and what every Gardnerian young woman has, is her fertility.

One of the most disturbing aspects of Forest's Gardneria is the fact that young women, regardless of their power, are "wandfasted" or bound to young men, to whom they are bound for life. The process leaves magical tattoos on their arms so it's obvious they're off the market. Once wandfasted they cannot have sex with another man lest they have horrible disfiguring burns form on their hands and arms and endure a lifetime of pain. Breaking your wandfasting is visibly and physically punitive for a woman. Wandfasting works quite differently for men. Sure they're marked as taken. But they can fool around (and apparently do quite a lot, with non-Gardnerian women like the poor Urisks or Selkies, who are often seen as little more than sex slaves and omg, wait until you see the horrifying Selkie sex-trafficking in book two) without suffering any of these consequences. Birth control is forbidden in Gardneria. The duty of every decent Gardnerian young woman is to be wandfasted at puberty, be subservient to her fastmate, go forth and obediently procreate. Interestingly we meet some powerful women who are either not wandfasted or whose fastmate has conveniently died. We can start with the almost all-powerful Carnissa (she was eventually killed by oops... spoiler) but there are other women who have escaped this fate. Men can marry again if their wife dies but it's not clear that women can fast to another man. Gardnerian girls as young as thirteen are wandfasted, with marriages arranged by their parents, usually the father, and little consideration is actually given to the rapport between fastmates. What's really important are the powerful alliances of these marriages and the sort of magical political dynastic lines formed. So much to love about Gardneria, where girls and young women are subserviently bound to a partner for life, on pain of horrible, disfiguring suffering, even if they loathe the fastmate. Great place. Great place to get away from. Can you spell Dystopia?

Elloren's good-hearted Uncle Edwin seeks to spare Elloren the usual fate of Gardnerian women. He moves to Halfix, as far away from Valgard, the capital of Gardneria, as he can feasibly get, and raises Elloren, Rafe and Trystan in humble circumstances with lots of books and animals and kindness. He plans to send all three children to university in the free province of Verpacia, at the university in Verpax, and to delay Elloren's wandfasting until she has graduated with her apothecary training completed. Unfortunately, Edwin's sister, Elloren's politically scheming Aunt Vyvian (daughter of Carnissa Gardner) has a different plan. Disappointed that Elloren has no power of her own since she's the spitting image of Mom, she is still trying to make a powerful wandfast match for Elloren, mostly to keep herself ensconced in the powerful Mage Council. With a prophecy that the Black Witch will rise again, Vyvian is clearly worried that the rumored new Black Witch, Fallon Bane, from another powerful mage family, will result in the Banes supplanting the Gardners for power and position. So she tries to wrest control of Elloren from Edwin and wandfast her to Lukas Grey, a young man from another powerful family, who is a Level Five military mage. Elloren is rightly chary of this plan and heads off to university where she is promptly punished by her aunt for her perfidy. She will have no money, no pretty things, no fancy accommodations and will have to work in the kitchen among, gasp, Urisks, and live with two, gasp-again, Icarals. Icarals are a despised race with wings, born seemingly randomly to parents of any race on Erthia, whether Elves, Fae, or even it seems Gardnerians. (Important backstory there) Elloren, who has been raised in a strict Gardnerian environment, feeling all First Children smug and superior, is initially horrified. But... But...

Remember that taste of freedom when you first went away to college and started seeing all these people and ways of living and ideas that were different from the ones you were raised with? Remember how if your parents were conservative you looked with curiosity at "dangerous" liberalism or maybe vice versa? Over months of living with Ariel and Wynter, her Icaral roommates, and studying with Lupines Diana and Jarod in Chemistrie, and having a lab partner, Tierney, who she gradually realizes is secretly glamoured to look Gardnerian, and working in the kitchen around a sweet Fae child, Kelts who despise her, and a gentle Urisk, Elloren begins to question everything, and I do mean everything, that she's been raised to believe. As a result, Elloren does the sensible thing. She starts asking her professors various questions she has about Gardnerian history and racial superiority. A Gardnerian professor tells her that she has the right of it and they're just the blessed ones. She is dissatisfied and pursues the matter further. Her kind Keltic professor regards her interest with surprise and after a quiet chat gives her various Erthian history books from the perspective of all the various races of Erthia. And gives her still more books later when she's finished the first batch. As she reads about history, culture and faith of all the peoples of Erthia, Elloren becomes even more confused. Because every race (except of course those poor evil and cursed Icarals) believes they are the ones with the right religion, the right culture, and the Right. However, out of this confusion what becomes paramount is that Elloren begins to see how abusive Gardnerian culture is and fear the rising power of an almost Hitler-like fanatical figure in Gardnerian politics.

There's a bunch of other stuff going on in this book, namely Elloren's possession of something that may or may not be the legendary White Wand, dual love interests, Lukas, the is-he-good-or-bad Gardnerian potential fastmate, and Yvan, the oh-no-not-a-Kelt! love interest, and the pastiche of all the various races that Elloren encounters with her increasingly open mind.

There has been a lot of commentary slamming this book for exhibiting white savior complex, which kind of made me laugh because Elloren isn't white. But should we call it emerald shimmer savior complex? Besides the fact that it's a mouthful I honestly feel like Elloren the Powerless wouldn't be saving anyone very well without the help of her friends. Elloren's friends form a dissident cooperative and given her relative naivete about some things, I think she'd be lost without them. Furthermore, when I think of white savior complex, I think of misguided white people saving people that don't need to be saved or whose own people might save them in ways that the white person cannot foresee or doesn't take the time to comprehend. The person that Elloren saves in this book needed saving. There was no one else who was going to save her, and that person's people were in no position to save or help her. (Elloren becomes involved in saving others with her friends, as well.) I would also point out that Elloren's friends, no matter what their affiliation, appear quite frankly to be the saving of her. Her aunt's punishment backfires spectacularly and rather than breeding disgust or hatred, it leads to insight and a quest for a greater understanding that fuels Elloren's resistance.

Elloren's learning to be open to other cultures, races, ideas, appears to be Forest's entire point in this novel. It is precisely this openness that allows Elloren to overcome her own very apparent racial issue- the fact that she looks exactly like her Gardnerian grandmother Carnissa, the murderous and vengeful Black Witch of worldwide fame (infamy?). Many people hate Elloren for her looks while others seem dismayed by her apparent powerlessness as if she's sorrily disappointing all of Gardneria. Elloren manages to make her friends in spite of her resemblance to Carnissa (a bigger barrier than initially apparent, by the time you get to the second book), and in spite of her own initial apprehensions and misconceptions of other races. She overcomes the latter concerns because she learns better. These friendships and alliances are the ones that save others and in a way save each of these characters, since they learn that there are good people out there in any tribe. That's learning to believe in hope. And that is one of the main themes of The Black Witch- the bonds you make, moving beyond mere tolerance, to understanding, respect, attachment and affection for those whose experience differs from your own. These bonds are the ones that will bring about real change in your world and the world at large.

I like this book because it shows young people benefitting from questioning the racial, cultural and religious prejudices, or mere assumptions, they were raised with. It challenges them to learn more about other cultures and religions and to see their own culture and religion from the perspective of others. I can think of no finer aspiration for young adult fantasy or dystopian fiction at present. Mind you, the book is not without its flaws. From its sprawling narrative to its abundance of pretty people save an "ugly" token (by-the-way disabled and boy that really bothered me) character, to the fact the way Elloren and her friends careen from one wild adventure to the next. But that's about as probable as Harry Potter and Ron and Hermione's fantasy adventures at Hogwarts. The Black Witch has got mages and wands and a magical university. It's got genuine friendships. It's got learning to be loyal and kind and accepting of difference. And that, Readers, is always worth reading.
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Reading Progress

August 7, 2018 – Shelved
August 7, 2018 – Shelved as: to-read
September 11, 2018 – Started Reading
September 11, 2018 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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message 1: by Stephanie (new) - added it

Stephanie Marzie, did you read this one or listen to it? I’m wondering how the audible is.

Marzie I listened on Audible and read when I couldn’t listen. It was enjoyable.

message 3: by Stephanie (new) - added it

Stephanie Thanks! I may listen to it then.

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