The Black Witch by Laurie Forest Book Review

I don’t think I’ve been this excited to start a new book series since I devoured the first Miss Peregrine book five years ago.

In the start of this series due to be at least a quintet, we follow someone named Elloren Gardner who’s known as a Gardnerian. Her Uncle Edwin has raised her and her brothers Rafe & Trystan pretty much away from hassles of war and politics, something her Aunt Evelyn who is really high up in world decision making, is extremely against. The three of them have lived a peaceful life in their home and country, and Elloren’s mainly loved playing the violin and a fascination with trees and various types of wood. Her grandmother, Cassandra, was a sorcerer known as The Black Witch, who was so influential during the Realm War that she got a spot on a completely male-dominated committee. Elloren doesn’t think much of her grandness, but when she gets a chance to become an apothecary, she heads off to Verpax University and she realizes she’ll be a little famous there from her grandmother. She thinks it’ll rock, considering the luxurious house Evelyn gives her till the year starts. But on her way in she sees a creature resembling a human called a Selkie, filled with cuts and lacerations, seen as property and helpless in a cage.

She also finds this university is packed with every race in Erthia known; even Icarals, who are seen as demons for their wings and abhorrent views towards Gardnerians and hygiene, and Kelts, the ones who killed her parents in the war. Also, her Uncle Edwin never had her wandfasted, which is a devotion to two Gardnerians for life; basically marriage, and Elloren always thought she’d do so after her studies, but it turns out most Gardnerians get wandfasted earlier than eighteen. Way way earlier. Evelyn has someone picked out for her, and he’s not horrible. He’s even compassionate. But she’s unsure and as a result has to bunk with Icarals who hate her guts, and work for her tuition with sickening workmates. But not everyone is out to get her, and she ends up slowly realizing not everyone she was taught to fear is really that way. In fact, she slowly comes to understand just how intolerant, narrow minded and downright cruel her culture is. However, even if Elloren adapts to new ideas about the world, what can she do? She doesn’t have any magic within her. A snooty girl named Fallon Bane is said to be the next Black Witch. So that’s all there is to it. Right?

A few years back I picked up a book that had been trashed because of a narrative with a privileged girl in a story about racism, called American Heart by Laura Moriarty. A new take on Huckleberry Finn, it was released shortly after this book and was the story of a Caucasian teenage girl deciding to help a Muslim trying to escape custody from a new rule that has put all Muslim Americans in a camp in Nevada, just like the Holocaust. I expected not to like the book. But I loved it. I’ve read it twice now. I’ll be reposting the review I wrote from my old site. This book has a similar but more aggressive feel of someone of the most privileged race and class transitioning into a hero, and you know what? I love this book too. Not because I believe in white superiority. People like that don’t read books anyway. But because they’re both just so damn fun and layered.

The reason I love books in general about oblivious people learning the errors of what they thought was acceptable, is it cuts to the core of the power of storytelling. Not to sound like a pastor or anything, but I believe storytelling is what makes us united, by putting us into shoes outside our worlds we’re accommodated to, and convinces us people around the world just like you and me may be struggling or hurting and they deserve empathy and assistance. And what could be better than a story about someone with beliefs of ignorance, division and hatred learning there may be cracks in that system, and maybe it’s the right thing to do to open her eyes?

From all its controversy in the book blogging world when it hit shelves and its powerful subject matter, I was expecting this book to at least interest me. At 600 big pages and a desire as a reader to finish every book I can to give it the full chance, I still felt ready for a clunker. So imagine my shock when the first 120 pages flew by like birds back from the south, and I realized I didn’t ever want to put this book down, even when it was showing some brakes being hit to develop Elloren’s university schedule. And here’s the simple reason why I couldn’t put it down. It’s not just that I found Elloren’s narrow takes fascinating with her being the protagonist, a very unusual and fresh spin on fantasy, but Laurie Forest, in spite of that fact, uses her suspenseful and passionate writing style to keep us rooting for her well being. Elloren is picked on only for her heritage, threatened by her roommates, constantly given looks of pure fury, and her only escape is wandfasting to someone she’s not sure if she wants to spend the rest of her life with. It really is a disaster for her.

The development of Elloren is extremely progressive. It takes a long time for her to adjust to the fact maybe the Kelts, Icarals and Urisk are not the enemies of the world she was always told by the community who cared for her, and even then she sticks to several Gardnerian principles, believing in the superiority and reasoning of those in her culture who wouldn’t, just wouldn’t, do all the things everyone is saying about her brethren. And the division and politics are so layered, never once did this fantasy world seem unrealistic for what it was. I was also grateful when light is brought to the fact the fancy clothes Elloren was gifted with from Evelyn were made from slave labour, which is one of the things to make her start changing her ways. Like in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, by talking about and showing how there are rich neighbourhoods that are only possible through businesses who abuse their staff, it sheds light on how there can be serious evil beneath the surface of glamour. I am not shunning anyone who likes fashion. I like getting a cool new shirt here and there. But Forest indirectly talks to us about hidden universes in our worlds, of abuse behind the fabulous clothes, of life and death behind the proposals that sneak their way into law. If anything, this book is the full package; a fantasy about the development of a flawed hero, plus a dive into division and corruption.

And you know something? I used to hate school as a kid. I advocated for just…less. Less time in class, less homework, less pressure. Like most kids, I guess. No one goes through education unscathed. You know it’s true. However, making friends, and learning about the horrors of the world I would one day head out into on my own, plus going to a much more multicultural university than I was used to in the town I grew up, all were gifts I will forever be grateful to have gotten. I never ever grew up with any prejudices towards those of a different race, colour or sexual orientation, but making friends of various identities opened up my desire for no one to have to feel they are inferior to anyone else. And The Black Witch is the best book I’ve ever read in sharing that exact same revolution. If anything, it brings a spotlight as to why right-wingers advocate for less education; because otherwise most people wouldn’t make as many diverse friends and advocate on behalf of them like Elloren learns to, as do the people who start out hating her.

I am extremely grateful the drama around this book subsided and people could wake up and see The Black Witch for the jewel it really was. Otherwise this series may have been cancelled and Laurie Forest wouldn’t have been able to write another book. That would’ve been a crime against literature. I can’t wait to dive into The Iron Flower.

If you like this, I’d try American Heart by Laura Moriarty, The Last Magician by Lisa Maxwell, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard, and the Avatar: The Last Airbender TV show

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