If you're looking for a fantasy adventure steeped in Celtic lore, the Witchlands series by Susan Dennard might be right up your alley—though I have mixed feelings about the latest installment, Witchshadow. So buckle up, witches. I've got a lot so say, and it's going to be a bumpy ride.
Genre: YA High Fantasy
Category: Cozy Read
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RATING: 3.5/5 Stars
Plot: 2.5/5 stars
Characters: 3.5/5 stars
World: 5/5 stars
First off, if it's been a while since you read the rest of the series, Dennard has a handy recaps page on her website with summaries of each installment.
Apparently, a lot happened between the end of Bloodwitch and the beginning of Witchshadow. Unfortunately, we’re thrown into all of it with little explanation, which is disorienting. There are flashbacks woven into different POVs, and while I respect Dennard for trying a new style, I wasn’t a fan of the execution. The novel would have been more exciting if these events had been part of the actual plot rather than flashbacks.
Despite finally reuniting at the end of Bloodwitch, the Light-Bringer and Dark-Giver are once again separated. Safi is trapped in yet another court while Iseult is on the run with Owl in tow.
Witchshadow is Iseult's book; with her being central to the plot between her unique power and potential to go either way in this war, one would think she'd have major plays in this book. But she didn't do much except what she’s done the whole series: run through the woods, try to find Safi, and brood.
As for the rest of the core group . . . they feel like an afterthought with how little they're shown. Aeduan battles an unseen enemy upon being possessed (despite being healed and TOTALLY FINE when he emerged from the Well at the end of Bloodwitch). So while his body is there, he certainly isn't. Same goes for Merik, who is virtually nonexistent; I think we get a glimpse of him at the end? And Esme, the delightfully insane villain, is apparently now a weasel with little of (from what remained) her humanity intact. Honestly, I miss her.
On a brighter note, supporting characters have their moments to shine as they get in on the action. We get a deeper look into Vaness as she teams up with Vivia, at Gretchya and Alma when Iseult stumbles upon their surprising hideout, and at Leopold as he covertly helps Safi around the castle. More on them later.
I have a love/hate relationship with Dennard’s writing in Witchshadow. What I don't particularly like is her use of repeating words and phrases:
“I feel…good,” Safi said, and to her surprise, the words were true, true, true.
“…her magic was an abomination of gray, gray, gray.”
“But there was nowhere to go, and there was—as she knew, knew, knew—no outrunning who she really was.”
“living, living, breath and living”
“sever, sever, twist and sever”
This style can at times be poetic, but I feel she overdid it. And some of the catchphrases her characters have just don’t feel right. I like “stasis," but other lines— like the Hell-Bards’ chant of camaraderie—don't make sense to me.
Iseult is one of my favorite characters, so I was sad to see her grappling with her insecurities and darker nature while also trying to be maternal toward Owl—something she's unfamiliar with, having rarely received that kindness herself.
Difference and privilege threaten to drive a wedge between Safi and Iseult as Iz recognizes how much she is relegated to the side for being both Nomatsi and the Dark-Giver. Despite being half of the Cahr Awen, she does not enjoy the same status or privilege as Safi—a white noblewoman and the light side of the mythical duo. Doesn't she have as much right to be seen and have fun as Safi does?
Iseult's constant oscillation between these mindsets gives the reader whiplash. One moment she decides she's whole and willing to accept herself and her powers, to forget about “stasis,” which she says has never truly worked for her—the next, she is chanting the mantra and right back to struggling with her identity. It gets repetitive. Thankfully, she comes a long way and finds a measure of peace within herself, unlocking new depths to her powers, kicking major ass, and saving the day.
I've never cared for Safi but am gaining respect for her. She endures a lot in this book, especially after sacrificing some of her magic for the Truth Lens earlier in the series and being enslaved as a Hell Bard. Without her witchery, Safi learns to rely on her instincts and figure out who she can really trust. And I enjoyed seeing her play magic inventor again.
Stix, who I’ve generally liked throughout the series, disappointed me. I expected a dedicated and dependable first mate to royalty to be less impulsive and able to listen to her partner. But no. At least she has some badass moments fighting in the Colosseum. I do wish we’d gotten more of Ryber’s POV, though I get that with the whole Paladin thing, Stix is the more important character.
Vivia is one character who did not disappoint. She's become one of my favorites. I love her respect for her witchery and element. The emphasis on how she makes requests rather than demands, which makes her relationship to her magic much stronger than others', makes me really admire her. I also respect her dedication to Nubrevna and her struggles to be taken seriously in a patriarchal society and shake off the deep-seated insecurities and loneliness that have been her constant companions. Teaming up with Vaness has a profound impact on her.
Although part of me shipped Vivia with her best friend/first mate Stix, the slow burn between Vaness and Vivia was fun. They’re both incredibly powerful queens with the intelligence and grit to lead their peoples to brighter futures. They make a badass team, and I look forward to seeing their story play out.
On the other hand, the slow burn between Safi + Merik and Iseult + Aeduan is starting to go from entertaining to excruciating. Safi and Merik’s instalove isn’t doing it for me. Now they’ve spent so much time apart, and I feel zero investment in them. Her fake dating with Leopold is entertaining, and I'm almost rooting for them to become more.
As for Iseult and Aeduan, I would like for them to be together on-page without something preventing them from actually being together. I’m not asking for spice, but SOMETHING more than fight, mention feelings, separate, repeat.
I enjoy the world Dennard's built in Witchlands, particularly the magic system. I love the nature-based witcheries, Iseult and Esme's strange magic, and the use of tarot. The landscapes and creatures are stunning. And who doesn't love a good ship battle, especially when magic and melee are used in tandem?
The Paladins have been intimidating and confusing in this series. I love the concept, but it's difficult to keep up with the original character and their Paladin/past life selves. Especially when you’re not sure who is who; I had to look up notes because I couldn’t keep them straight. So I'm glad to see some of that cleared up in Witchshadow.
I have mixed opinions on Witchshadow. Do I hate it? No. Is it my favorite book in the series? Maybe not. Perhaps rereading the series without such a time gap will change my mind.
There are fun aspects, but the repetitiveness, missing characters, lack of romance and development, and slow yet predictable climax make Witchshadow boring at times. It has major filler/setup vibes. Dennard may have bitten off more than she can chew with the complexity of the story, and her attempts at poetic prose don't always work for me. But it's not over yet, so we'll see how she wraps things up! I'm optimistic.
I try to be lenient due to everything Dennard went through while writing this book, but I was most excited for Iseeult's story and a bit disappointed in it. I hope the next book, rumored to be the last, will be an epic conclusion that makes up for the slogging. I truly hope so, because I love the magic system, world, and some of the characters so much.
If you've yet to read this series, don't let this review discourage you. It's a fun fantasy series with unique takes on magic, found family, morally gray characters, and characters of various ethnicities, sexual identities, and orientations. If it sounds like something you'd be interested in, grab a copy of the first book here!