BookBrowse Reviews The Black Witch by Laurie Forest

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The Black Witch

The Black Witch Chronicles #1

by Laurie Forest

The Black Witch by Laurie Forest X
The Black Witch by Laurie Forest
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  • First Published:
    May 2017, 608 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2018, 608 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Michelle Anya Anjirbag
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A story about finding the courage to trust those you've been taught to hate and fear.

In The Black Witch, Laurie Forest introduces her readers to an immersive fantasy world where protagonist, Ren, is forced out of her sheltered life and into the far more diverse landscape of her school, Verpax University. There she hovers between the world of dominance where she grew up, and suddenly living alongside those she was raised to think of as inferior. In addition to a rich fantasy tapestry, the plot is layered with political intrigue and developed secondary characters with auxiliary stories that will be sure to captivate readers through subsequent books in the series.

However, while Forest clearly attempts to insert a dialogue about prejudice and confronting both stereotypes and institutionalized narratives of dominance, this proves to be a weakness, rather than strength, of the novel. As I was reading, I kept asking myself how many times can we tell the story of "conservative superior race heroine leaves sheltered background, sees the world, experiences diversity, and becomes emblematic of THE RESISTANCE" while also recognizing the need for diverse books, especially in Young Adult literature. While master race rhetoric in fantasy novels can provide a dystopic mirror for readers, the shallow ways Ren contends with this rhetoric becomes questionable. Ren never really faces the dangers of resistance, or even, existence, while those "others" whom she befriends must.

Ren continually benefits from her station, and wields her social and religious status as a weapon as it benefits her. It is hard for me to say how this would be received by readers who might see themselves less in the protagonist and more in some of the secondary characters, and it is hard to say, too, if this is a deliberate construction to underscore a level of Ren's hypocrisy, or if this is an oversight. The very obvious parallels to evangelical and eugenic rhetoric, and how they are represented in the book, as well as some of the depictions of relationships and morality and chastity, discomfited me. It is very much politically and racially loaded, and it is easy to see how people with different preconceptions will all find very different things in this book – and not all of them will take this text as a critique, but as a manual.

But it is because of my discomfort and very visceral reaction that I forced myself to take a second look at the dialogues that I believe might be initiated because of this novel, and separate my academic mind from my general reader's mind, which is very much interested in seeing how this all plays out in the next book in the series. The writing in The Black Witch is solid, the fantasy is developed, the world is immersive, and the characters are not flat – though some are emblematic. That being said, fantasy worlds constructed for young adult/adult crossover audiences are not in short supply, nor are those fantasy worlds that use the constructed world to provide a critique of and reflection on myriad social problems. A world like this, a story like this, will ultimately be put up against the worldbuilding of authors such as Tamora Piece, Robin McKinley, and Ursula K. LeGuin, to name a few. While those authors have set the high bar for this kind of social critique through fantasy, this should not demerit The Black Witch in and of itself either, as it speaks very much to the contemporary reality within which it is published.

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in August 2017, and has been updated for the August 2018 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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