The first thing I heard about The Black Witch was about the controversy. The word was out through my more internet connected friends that this book handled racism like a drunk teenager with a Roman candle. I avoided it for a long time but then decided that before I judge the thing, I should probably read it and make up my own mind.
And I actually loved it. I couldn’t stop reading. The main character Elloren is a naive girl who was practically raise under a rock. And when she does emerge into greater society the first voices she hears are those of her peers telling her what savages the other races are, in a society obsessed with racial purity. Elloren isn’t immediately likeable. She is in fact a big wimp. She cries a lot and for the first half of the book she is incredibly reactive: running to others to fight her battles, complaining rather than trying to solve problems herself, and whining that she’s weak. But the more the book goes on, the more Elloren takes control of her life and the most likeable she gets, even if she’s not your favourite character by the end of the novel.
It’s clear from the beginning that the author’s views are not the Gardnerian views. No matter what Elloren hears about the other “races” there is always a nagging little voice in the back of her head that says “but can that really be the way it is?”. And racial purity, Elloren later finds out, was a complete lie formed on a nation-building myth to begin with.
But even if Elloren isn’t your favourite character there are plenty of characters to like. Diana is the absolute best, with her brash attitude, utter lack of shame, and stunning self-confidence. If she was named for Wonder Woman I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised. They seem to share a lot of the same characteristics including a straight-forward nature and super strength (not to mention a casual attitude toward nudity).
And then there is Rafe, Elloren’s brother, who has a lot more exposure to the wider world and Gardnerian politics than his sister but has always remained open-minded and fair. Or Trystan who is sweet or Wynter who is incredibly empathetic and kind. I like them all a lot, possibly because their relationships with each other take so long to develop.
It does take half the book for Elloren begin climbing the slope to realising just how much prejudice has been ingrained in her society and how much of she has taken as fact. But I think that this slow climb to understanding is something that makes this book stronger. If it took Elloren five minutes with her aunt to realise that everything she’s being fed is bullshit then it would have been an unrealistic failure at world-building on Forest’s part, because no one turns on what they’ve been taught their whole lives at the snap of a finger.
One thing I thought was a little off was the instalove-ness of Lukas Grey’s obsession with Elloren. He meets her at a ball and all of a sudden he wants her to wandfast (aka super-marry) him. And Elloren is swept off her feet because she can’t believe the most desirable bachelor suddenly wants her, this girl from the stix (even though she does practically come from Royalty). Lukas Grey felt like a misdirect, and to me I always got the sense that there was something sinister under the surface. Like he had ulterior motives for wanting to wandfast to her, like the fact that he can sense a magical power from Elloren and he wants the prestige that comes from being tied to the Gardner family.
And he has some genuine creepy moments, like when he uses a spell to create magical ropes and draw her close and ignores her ‘no’s. While she lets him court her at the time, I think that by the time they meet in the next book he is going to really start laying on the creep and become one of the big bads.
I got some serious vibes from The Black Witch that reminded me of a lot of books I love. Aunt Vyvian felt like Mrs. Coulter from His Dark Materials, reincarnated to haunt us all. Then when Elloren gets to University I had some serious Harry Potter flash backs with a character referencing a line from Snape as he says
“It seems we have a celebrity amongst us,” he marvels, his mouth tilting with incredulity, his eyes tight on me with unnerving intensity. “The granddaughter of the Black Witch.” … “There will be no preferential treatment here, Mage Elloren Gardner.”
The more the book went on, the more I saw hints of our world; moments of seeing pre-war Germany and the USA circa 2018. Tierney reminds me of a Jewish girl hiding from the Gestapo. Even the way that Verpacian Council decides to placate its Gardnerian majority by giving in to their initial racial separatist demands is something that happened during Hitler’s rise to power. And random border iron-testing smacks of Trump’s increasing scrutiny of his own naturalized citizens.
I was also impressed that Forest managed to keep away from racial coding her fantasy races. The Gardnerians can be read as white, but there are so many other “races” with a myriad of different customs that it became difficult to say one race had a specific counterpart to any nationality or ethnic group in our own. The Black Witch let the racism and prejudice develop in its own way as part of the world building rather than trying to emulate our world and doing a poor job. And while Forest doesn’t quite tackle systemic racism in The Black Witch, it isn’t completely erased from the book either. One moment that struck me as completely poignant was how Ariel was addicted to sedative berries that she was given in the Asylum as a child, pretty much dooming her and all the other Icarals to a life of addiction. Another were cookies that the Gardnerian people like to make of Icarian wings that you break before eating to symbolize the real life breaking of Icarans. Creepy AF.
The Black Witch isn’t trying to talk about racism in our world the same way that a book like The Hate U Give is trying to talk about racism. What it is trying to say is that it is important to question our prejudices and find out what’s really going on in our world, because it’s only by educating ourselves about the world we live in and listening to the experience of people who have been marginalized that things can start to change.
Here are a couple quotes I liked:
“Real education doesn’t make your life easy. It complicates things and makes everything messy and disturbing. But the alternative, Elloren Gardner, is to live your life based on injustice and lies.”
“You haven’t followed politics because you haven’t had to,” she snipes, raw resentment breaking through. “And it shows. You’re incredibly naive.”