Susan Dennard’s Truthwitch is something of a curious beast.
It’s set in a fairly typical cod-medieval fantasyland: the Witchlands, made up of a number of rival kingdoms on the verge of war as a twenty-year truce comes to an end.
What makes it stand out (a little; I’ve no wish to over-egg it) is its central characters, Safiya and Iseult; both female, and best friends to boot, in a genre that traditionally values neither femininity nor platonic female friendship. Safiya is a rare Truthwitch, with the ability to see truth from lies; essentially, the novel concerns the shenanigans the various powers of the Witchlands go through in order to control her in the race to get the upper hand in the impending war. Refreshingly, Dennard doesn’t go for the endless political minutiae of high fantasy; hers is a much closer focus, on Safiya and Iseult’s relationship and Safiya’s journey from powerlessness to self-determination.
This is a novel, then, that is basically aware of the toll that traditional high fantasy political machination takes on minorities. Safiya begins the novel about to be married off, all unknowing, to the revolting Emperor of Cartorra, and spends a good deal of it being carted around like so much baggage (which I imagine could turn off some readers); her arc is about gaining political power for herself, recognising her own influence instead of being used like a bargaining chip. Iseult, for her part, is also a powerful magic-user – she’s a Threadwitch, meaning she can see people’s emotions – and has experienced racial discrimination herself as a Nomatsi, an ethnic minority not allowed to live within the cities. Personally, I think this warranted more exploration; but, again, it’s a recognition that the world of traditional epic fantasy is not a pleasant place to be for everyone.
It bears repeating that these are interesting and important things to be doing: representing female friendship, strong platonic relationships, female power and racial oppression. But, for me, the novel still feels conservative, and I think this is because Dennard’s examination of these things feels superficial rather than structural. Her world is still cod-medieval, and life in the larger empires still feels pleasant and comfortable for pretty much everyone. (The ravaged Dalmotti Empire seems rather overdone and never quite generates the outrage it should.) I enjoyed reading it because that very materialistic Tolkienian setting feels familiar to me; not because it challenged my thinking or rewrote the genre.
It is a decent piece of YA fantasy, though, and I think I would recommend it to those who particularly enjoy that genre (alongside Sabriel and Uprooted).