ARC Review: The Black Witch

The Black Witch
The Black Witch by Laurie Forest
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A new Black Witch will rise…her powers vast beyond imagining.

Elloren Gardner is the granddaughter of the last prophesied Black Witch, Carnissa Gardner, who drove back the enemy forces and saved the Gardnerian people during the Realm War. But while she is the absolute spitting image of her famous grandmother, Elloren is utterly devoid of power in a society that prizes magical ability above all else.

When she is granted the opportunity to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming an apothecary, Elloren joins her brothers at the prestigious Verpax University to embrace a destiny of her own, free from the shadow of her grandmother’s legacy. But she soon realizes that the university, which admits all manner of people—including the fire-wielding, winged Icarals, the sworn enemies of all Gardnerians—is a treacherous place for the granddaughter of the Black Witch.

As evil looms on the horizon and the pressure to live up to her heritage builds, everything Elloren thought she knew will be challenged and torn away. Her best hope of survival may be among the most unlikely band of misfits…if only she can find the courage to trust those she’s been taught to hate and fear.

I think most of you may already be aware of the controversy surrounding this book, so my speaking about it, especially now, after its release, is mostly adding a drop to the ocean of opinions about it. I generally don’t rate books I’ve never read, or try to read books that have already been deemed problematic by the bookish community at large. Nevertheless, I had a galley and I had intended to review it (at one point of time), so that is what I did.

Before I even get to the main controversy surrounding racism, I would like to discuss the technical aspects of the book. The world of Erthia is split into several races, and countries with their own sets of religions and populations. Gardneria is the country that is principally ruled by the main dominant race in this world, the Gardnerians, while Verpacia and other Eastern Realms (I did not have the map in my galley copy so I may be wrong on this) are ruled by a council of the different dominant races. Leaving aside context and my bias based on what I heard about the book (which honestly was very difficult to set aside), the book feels unfocused on what it’s main plot is. We start in the first part with some prophecy about a Black Witch who is fated to defeat an Icaral, and obviously our protagonist is going to be the Chosen One. But then in part 2, when we get to the University in Verpacia and we have a plot that centers around the prejudices of the races against each other, and in part 3 it is ‘people of different races work together’; the plot points of part 1 are mostly ignored at this point and it feels like the author went to extraordinary effort just to turn the protagonist less racist. The plot inconsistencies are also quite evident when you compare over the 3 parts of the book. Lucas Grey attacking her was mostly ignored for the rest of the book. Another plot hole was the protection Elloren uses against Bane – though the latter girl was tormenting her on a daily basis, the scene where she realizes it doesn’t work and when Elloren started using the protection are weeks apart, implying that basically every trouble she had in part 2 was ignored in the plot during that time.

Now, coming back to the racism, aside from part 1 the book can basically be summed as ‘look I did not choose to be as racist as my grandma!’. No seriously, this is a story of a privileged girl from a dominant race learning basic respect and not to, you know, judge people by prejudices. And I get it on one level – we are all unlearning the twisted conditioning we have. But did that have to take half a book? And mind you, this is a 600 page book, so she took nearly 300 pages to think – oh what if what I have been told is not right and people are people and not monoliths? By that point of time, you are ready to slap her just for her sheer stupidity; it is not even naivete, it is blind disregard for anybody else other than her own race.

Elloren is an extremely unlikable protagonist – mainly because she spends a majority of part 2 whining and then in part 3 she expects to be lauded for not being as racist as her people. Give the girl an award, yo! (eyeroll) Her transgressions range from being openly hostile to other races just because they don’t treat her with the respect she is used to, to frequently referring to other races by their race than their names. Like, she calls most of her Professors by the their name, but the Metallurgy one she refers to as the Snake Elf until the second half. Also she feels instantly comfortable when she sees other Gardnerians, even if they are mostly hostile or look down on her because of her lack of magic. She does a whole 180 in part 3, of course, but by that time it is too little, too late. The only characters who aren’t repulsive are actually her two older brothers, esp Rafe who is like woke from the start.

The world derives a lot from our current world – the Fae banishment is akin to the Holocaust, the Urisk laborers are like African slaves brought over, Gardneria is very much an amalgam of the colonial Europe countries. I wouldn’t say they are white, since their skin color isn’t mentioned even once throughout the text, but they are described with only green eyes. Then again, there are purple skinned people around, so the best I can say for Gardnerians is that they are representative of white neo-Nazi fascists. Look, the real world implications of this book cannot be ignored as it very much reflects our current state of affairs, and in this context it reads more like – ‘look we white people are your allies, if only you let us be! Ignore our shared history and maybe we can work together!’ In a world where POC issues are usually given more notice if backed by a white voice, this novel is like a slap in the face for those people of color.

Basically, what I am saying is – don’t waste 3+ days procrastinating and hating yourself in reading this book, like me! The writing and world-building may be good, but this one is so problematic and just reinforces the publisher’s ideas that racism is not a deal-breaker for readers. Don’t contribute to an existing issue in the book community. There are so many other good books out there with excellent world-building and pretty much the same issues tackled more sensitively than ‘I’ll read and judge myself’ing this one! For example, go read The Bone Witch if you love detailed world-building, Dead Witch Walking if you want a world filled with different magical races and dealing with the prejudices against each other.

Received an advance reader copy in exchange for a fair review from Harlequin Teen, via Edelweiss.

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