Book Review: Truthwitch

Title: Truthwitch
Susan Dennard
Young Adult/Fantasy
Version: Paperback
Page Count: 
Tor Teen
Synopsis: GoodReads | StoryGraph
Notable Notables: 
Original magic system, female friendship-inspired yet unbalanced
Recommended Readers: 
Casual fantasy readers
CAWPILE Rating: 2.29
Rating: ★☆☆☆☆

My Review

Truthwitch by Susan Dennard was the latest pick for my book club I started this year with a few of my friends, and I had high hopes about delving into a once-hyped fantasy series I missed getting into back in 2017. The emphasis I was seeing from other reviews and the marketing of Truthwitch itself boasted female friendships as its main focus, bolstered by original world-building and a developed magic system about different kinds of witches. Unfortunately, reading the book led me to a crushing reality: over-hyped book was over-hyped and perhaps did not get better with age.

The basics of the story are thus: Safiya, or Safi, is a rare, coveted Truthwitch whose magic can seemingly discern truth from lies. I say seemingly because the rules for Safi’s Truthwitchery change with the situation, but I’ll cover that more later. Her best friend and Threadsister, Iseult, is a Threadwitch, meaning she can see everyone else’s threads and discern their emotions, ties, and bonds but cannot see her own. Iseult is also the character who will suffer the most from Fantasy Racism throughout the novel. When a planned heist goes awry, Safi and Iseult must go on the run before a Bloodwitch named Aeduan can hunt them down through, y’know, smelling their blood. If anyone gets their hands on Safi, they can use her Truthwitchery for nefarious means, and Iseult will… apparently be alone and just suffer from racism. Meanwhile, Prince Merik of a foreign nation is desperately trying to establish a trade agreement to feed his starving people and save his broken nation, and in the process he gets dragged into all this nonsense.

If I seem more flippant than usual in covering the synopsis, it’s because there was very little about Truthwitch that I could take seriously. There were parts and characters I definitely liked, but so much of the world-building and magic system needed to be baked a whole lot more. Too many rules kept breaking in the name of plot twists, too many leaps of logic had to be made, and too many character relationships were underdeveloped or outright forced—especially where the romance was concerned.

But wait? Wasn’t this book supposed to be primarily about how amazing female friendships can be? Well… Hm. It’s funny you should say that. It’s no secret that Susan Dennard wrote and published Truthwitch when she and Sarah J. Maas were BFFs before their semi-public falling out. The book itself is dedicated to Maas, with the acknowledgements touting Maas as Dennard’s “Threadsister,” their friendship being the main inspiration for the story. Yet the friendship between Safi and Iseult was unbalanced and painful to read at times.

It was also constantly being undermined by insta-love romance. You can have both a strong sisterhood and a romance in one story, but you have to develop these things. You can’t act like you’ve already done all the friendship work by throwing around the word “Threadsister” like it really means anything, and you can’t lean on “Heart-threads” to do all the romance for you. It reeks of lazy soulmate stories, and honestly… if I don’t ship something, it means you did it wrong. I ship everything. Safi and Iseult weren’t even written well enough together to be shippable, and that should tell you all you need to know right there. But all of this will make more sense with a breakdown of the characters.

First, there’s Sarah J. Maas—I mean, Safi, who is the ultimate cancer of this book and a large reason of why it consistently fails. She’s impulsive, hot-headed, and believes everything that spews from her mouth is witty banter or a sick burn. The book reiterates over and over again that Safi is the one who can think on her feet and execute a plan, but I never witnessed it. She doesn’t make a single good or logical decision in 400 pages. If a situation can get worse, Safi will be the one to make it so, and there’s no entertainment value in it. And of course, Safi is secretly nobility, so what are consequences?

Then, there’s Susan Dennard—I mean, Iseult, who is the calmer, more withdrawn half of this sisterhood. She’s the strategic mind who can develop a plan as long as she has the breathing room to do so, but she cracks under pressure. She’s critical of herself but logical, deadly in a pinch, and empathetic towards others. She’s fiercely protective of Safi, but often to her own detriment and not at the one time with the Bloodwitch when it actually mattered (but that was the writing’s fault, not her). I unabashedly love her and wish she had so much more time to shine or was in a better book. And I wish she had a better friend than Safi.

Because the sad fact is, that for every terrible decision Safi makes, it’s usually Iseult who bares the brunt of the consequences. It’s Iseult who has to make up for Safi’s failings. It’s Iseult that cringes whenever Safi pulls her White Savior complex, to the point where Iseult has to tell Safi to stop because she tries to escalate fights with racist assholes. (And given how long their friendship has been and how close they seemingly are, Safi should know by now that there are better ways to help and protect Iseult from Fantasy Racism, and making things aggressively worse on purpose isn’t it, fam.) I earnestly wish Iseult could find a better friend and Threadsister, but she can’t, the novel tells me, because everyone is so gotdang Fantasy Racist.

Unless you are a named side or main character. Then conveniently, you aren’t racist at all. It’s only the unnamed background folks that spew weird slurs like “‘Matsi smut,” but even they don’t mean what they say usually. Safi’s Truthwitchery said so.

Wild, right? So Iseult should just find a new found family. This one with Safi is bad.

Indeed, Truthwitch attempts to hammer home the idea that Safi and Iseult are a prophesied Balanced Pair, but nothing could be further from the truth. They may fight well together, but as a pair of friends, they are wholly unbalanced. Iseult is the one who saved Safi’s life and made them Threadsisters in the first place, and ever since, it’s Iseult that gives and gives and gives while Safi only takes. And sure, Safi spends most of the novel feeling guilty about that—but then she never changes. In the climax of the book, Safi has a pathetic revelation that she’s just fine the way she is and doesn’t need to change, and girl, you super, super do!

Even their powers are unbalanced. Iseult’s Threadwitchery seems to follow certain rules even though there are parts of it that are unknown to her, like why she can’t do certain things that Threadwitches are known for. There’s a mysterious destiny of darkness that surrounds her, with uncomfortable comparisons being made with herself and a shadowy Puppeteer who’s running loose, which was cool to chew over. I do wish the shadow suddenly appearing in her head made more sense, but that sentiment extends through the whole book for me about many separate issues.

Safi’s Truthwitchery, however, is all over the place. I spent the majority of reading trying to figure out how it actually worked because at one point, Safi seemed to be able to discern the Unadulterated Truth no matter what. At the next point, she’s duped by her Uncle Eron’s drunken act even though it has been revealed to her it’s an act. So… she can be fooled by method actors? She can tell when someone is lying to themselves, but she believed her nation’s history books because her teachers believed their false narrative. It’s almost to the end of the novel when I finally got an explanation from Safi herself about how her power works, but by that point, it was too late. It made even less sense because above all, what seemed to affect Safi’s Truthwitchery the most was whether she wanted to believe something was true or not. Which… that’s kinda useless, huh? The ending really summed it up: “I can do anything,” Safi told herself. ‘True,’ her magic purred. ‘Always true.'” Sweetheart, no, you can’t. Escape from your captors right now. Hold your breath underwater for 20 minutes with nothing but you and your lungs. You can’t do it, so what Truth does your magic actually detect?

The more the rules for Safi’s power changed, the less politically useful her power seemed to be, and that was the whole point of the novel-long chase to capture her. But of course, if you keep changing the magic rules, then you keep changing its limitations too. This is how we land ourselves in OP land, so here’s hoping Dennard gets a handle on this in the sequels because right now it doesn’t work.

My problems with these two aside, let’s cover the next main character: Aeduan aka the most useless POV I’ve ever read! Aeduan is somehow the fan fav of this series, but that has to occur later because there is nothing here. His POV chapters are miserable to read because you barely learn anything from him that you couldn’t have also learned from someone else in the scene with him. He has zero thoughts aside from blood, hunting down those witches, and all the people he could kill, but he won’t for… reasons unknown! Why? He won’t explain because he doesn’t feel feelings or experience thought processes.

He’s also the classic YA assassin, which is to say he’s the so-called merciless killer that conveniently never kills anyone. He even lets a dude go just because Aeduan can tell he’s a family man. I’m sorry, what? This is another level of pathetic. (And no, his vague hacking and slashing at those Cleaved at the end doesn’t count, not when it’s abundantly clear they’re too far gone to be saved and not considered real people anymore. Have Aeduan actually look someone important in the eyes and have a personal, intimate moment while he kills them, and then I’ll call him an assassin.) Or really I’d love it if he, for once, succeeds in anything he tries to do. I mean, gosh, Safi gets the better of him numerous times. This is a well-written antagonist? Absolutely not. It’s a bag of hot air.

His Bloodwitchery is also a bit skewed toward the illogical. He can scent someone’s blood and tell where they are if it’s in their body. Wait, no, he can tell by smelling the scent of blood in the air though it hasn’t been spilled… even though things like wind exist, which means that the wind can move the scent. Not so for Aeduan! It’s like a compass no matter what! Bloodwitches also can’t be killed by anything less than decapitating them. They will heal from anything else. How? No idea. Props to Dennard for giving Aeduan a single limitation: if he gets injured, his body heals automatically, which takes away from the magic pool he has available. Unfortunately, we never see that be a real consequence for Aeduan, where he has to think on his feet and act without magic; he also never gets to a point where he’s so drained that someone could conceivably kill him without having to decapitate him, but better luck next time.

Despite how amazing his Bloodwitchery is, Aeduan is also fooled by Uncle Eron’s drunk act, smelling the alcohol in his blood, yet… Eron isn’t actually drinking any of the alcohol, or so I understood with the text. So how can Aeduan be so easily fooled when there isn’t any alcohol in Eron’s bloodstream, just on his breath from where he swills it? I can only fathom that Eron has some kind of witchery going for him, but no answers are forthcoming as of yet.

Maybe what I dislike most about Aeduan, though, is the forced pairing with him and Iseult. It makes me hiss. Kill it with fire. She deserves better.

Finally, there’s Merik, our last main character, whose first two chapters I genuinely enjoyed. His Threadfamily situation with Kullen was much more intimate, heartfelt, and interesting than Safi and Iseult’s by a mile, probably because they were closer to being balanced and not totally insane. The stakes Merik was facing with his country’s poverty were some of the only ones that felt real, and I wanted to see him navigate these situations while dealing with a very real anger problem.

But unfortunately, I couldn’t because then he meets Safi, and everything imploded on itself with their insta-love and no chemistry. It was unbearable. I think I only hated it more than Iseult/Aeduen because the latter is still a vague threat that I can pretend never happens.

What was left for me to enjoy wasn’t much but I clung to it all the same. Kullen and Merik’s brotherhood, what little there was of Kullen and Ryber’s relationship, Iseult’s complicated past with her clan, Leopold’s dazzling presence and scheming, everything going on with Uncle Eron, Habim, and Mathew. Y’know, all the things Truthwitch wasn’t truly about.

For these crumbs, I received a fast-paced, novel-length chase scene that culminated in something that had heard of a climax before but had never seen its shape. The climax was also where I lost one of the few things I cared about. Iseult was either passed out or injured for a good chunk of the book. Kullen ribs Merik about being so tense he needs to get laid, Dennard’s voice coming out of him to instantly suggest that it should be with Safi despite all of Kullen’s interactions with her being terrible.

When Iseult was injured and almost dying was the point the book lost most of its charm, or maybe where I lost the rest of the grace I was trying to give it. Iseult needed a doctor, but instead of Safi and another character bringing a healer to a ship, they chose instead to secretly haul her unconscious body off the ship and cross the sea onto an enemy ship. How did they do that without being seen or stopped? The other character was a Waterwitch, but she specialized in healing, and all of her combat was done with practical weapons, not water. So what happened? Did she use another element of her power hitherto unseen? No idea! Dennard just skipped to them magically being on the other ship and ignored how absurd the whole reasoning to go there was.

Of course, shit hit the fan, and Merik rightly punished Safi for endangering the entire ship and crew by putting her in time out, iron clamped around her ankle. No flogging, no brig, no rations being taken away, just that, and it is viewed as being the worst, most unfair punishment you’ve ever seen. Look at how sad Safi is, and how chilled she’s become from the rain… as if everyone else on the ship isn’t also being rained on and doing hard labor besides. I guess this was also supposed to add to their friction as a will-they-won’t-they couple, but nope. Didn’t accomplish that one.

It was just silly. So much of Truthwitch could be summed up thus: just silly. A shame because I’ve seen fan art of the characters, and they all look incredible. I wish they’d lived up to what the fan art promised. As for the plot itself, I read another reviewer who said they reacted in an “Oh, okay,” manner any time a new plot twist happened, and that was my reaction as well. No emotions of excitement or any real feeling besides annoyance were stirred in me by anything. Just “oh, okay.”

This must be what Aeduan feels like.

So yeah, it’s a no for me on Truthwitch. I will only give Windwitch a shot if my friend says she feels the story is redeemed. I’ve read the preview for it, and it seems like the series gets a soft reset, but I’m not sure if the reset is an improvement yet. I do hope all those typos got caught because I cannot deal with another badly written book and typos on top of it. Not coming from an author signed on to a major publishing house. C’mon, y’all, do better.

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