It’s such a shame when an instalment in a book series you love disappoints you so much. It makes you feel like now, if you recommend the other books, you’re now setting readers up for them to care enough to have to deal with a slog. In this case, The Shadow Slog might be a more appropriate title.
If you haven’t read my two reviews of the last Black Witch novels, here is my one of the first and the second. The short version is…they were magnificent! The first Black Witch was a wonderful surprise, a world of magical powers that shattered the life the protagonist was accustomed to and made her see the racism and hatred that her people were inflicting on the world. Then The Iron Flower was perhaps even better, with her and her new friends teaming up for an undercover rebellion against the practices of the new world leader that was and is turning Erthia into a warzone that won’t stop until everyone who looks different from or disagrees with the views of bigoted Gardnerians is worm food. I gave both of the books perfect scores.
I was so impressed and simply proud of how Laurie Forest overcame a parade of hate against her first book stemming from one ranting review that didn’t paint the full picture, discussing how the protagonist had racist views towards the different species of people in her world but not touching upon how she learns as she gets to know her classmates how those views drilled into her are hateful and her people are actually not the good guys. Readers were giving a mountain of bad reviews based on that review, not having actually read the book itself. She and her publishers still kept the train going and eventually the unwarranted hate died off and people saw The Black Witch and The Iron Flower for the magical and loving books they were.
Well, I still have faith in this series, but I put this third instalment, The Shadow Wand, down after three weeks of reading where I took two breaks to start different books. I really don’t understand how Forest lost her touch so bad. The Shadow Wand deviates from the last two so much in structure, priority, pace, and adds way too much lust, that this feels like it was written by a different author who has long-standing objections to its predecessors or something.
So, I guess the days of the University are long gone. Now it’s time to be out in the field. Elloren ends up having to go back to Gardneria under the care of her horrible Aunt Vyvian, separated from all her friends who have made it to the Eastern Lands, but are only safe for now. And this bit of temporary safety Elloren has only because her identity as the next Black Witch still hasn’t become public knowledge and because her many crimes against her people (which she deserves a parade for doing) aren’t known to be her work yet. And this so-called safety comes with a price. Her relationship with Lukas Grey resumes, after Elloren devoted herself to Yvan Guriel, who she devoted herself to. But as Elloren and Lukas are finally forced together, she does not fawn over him but realizes she saw him as a monster on the same side as Marcus Vogel but there’s actually a lot more to him than we thought.
That’s the description I got for you. This is a 667-paged book that felt like it could have been written in 400 or even 300 pages instead. A huge fraction of the book is only setting up a handful of new characters where after a chapter or two we don’t hear from most of them again. When you have to briefly introduce new points of view to guide the story you have in mind forward, better ways to do it than this would be to declutter and save some for the next book, or at least keep them concise enough that they don’t feel like filler. But even the many chapters from Elloren’s point of view are filler too. So much of it is Elloren scared of losing control, which is in contrast to the brave warrior she turned into in the last book, so I can at least hope she’ll no longer be scared of her power after all this progress. So much of it also involves romance that’s more eye-rolling and troubling than uplifting (a whole chapter is her and a character having sex, which shouldn’t be boring but drags and therefore is), and descriptions of everything around that feel like nonsense. It’s like Forest had the conclusion of this chapter of Elloren’s journey adamantly in mind but knew there wasn’t enough material to get it to 600 pages like the other ones, so stretching it with exposition and new points of view would keep the tradition going. Mission accomplished, I guess.
And you know? I do understand what she was going for a little bit. This is for the most part not a story about the rebellion against Vogel but a story about grief. Most of it stems from one chapter near the beginning (you’ll know which one) but I had the feeling something was off from it because the writing at the end of the chapter felt dismissive towards the demise of a character. So I felt the grief was perhaps not warranted. If they worked harder to make us believe this character was really gone, like give us more chapters or end it with more finality, I think I would have bought Elloren’s emotional journey more. Alas, I didn’t, and it makes a lot of the grieving process in this book feel, even if it’s actually well written and feels like an honest exploration of heartache for Elloren, unintentionally suspicious like a pizza with a strange seasoning.
What The Shadow Wand basically is is setup for the last two books, in two different ways. One decent, the other not so much. The decent way is showing us the further power of the tyrant Marcus Vogel to explain to us how an assassination attempt on him would not be so simple. The not-so-much one is taking the less popular side of a love triangle that’s been brewing in this series and bringing it centre stage. The reason this is a not-so-much setup is not because it’s a flat-out bad idea. It’s not a flat-out bad idea. We get to see a new side to a character we saw as unlikable and remember some first impressions aren’t right. It’s because the intensity of this new relationship inadvertently suggests the love triangle will be a big point in the upcoming books, which is not supposed to be the driving point of this series, so if that happens, I sincerely hope it does not eat away at the entire thing like this one.
The last two chapters are good. They gave me some hope for the next two books and they remove a stench that was lingering around most of the rest of this book. If you read the book you’ll know what I mean. I’ll eventually return to this series, but I need a break before The Demon Tide because The Shadow Wand will be known in the young-adult book community for years as a spectacular series shooting itself in the foot.