The Black Witch by Laurie Forest
Available: Hardcover, Kindle edition, audiobook
Not too long ago, there was controversy over racism in The Black Witch. based on this review. I was sent a copy for review, and the press release seemed to indicate the book was supposed to be the exact opposite of racist, so I sat down and read it, and thought about it. About two days later, there were protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, and I had to rethink my first impressions.
The Black Witch is the story of Elloren, the granddaughter of the great hero-mage of Gardneria, the Black Witch. Elloren looks just like her deceased grandmother, but unlike her, has no magic. She has lived a sheltered life, raised by her uncle far away from pretty much everyone and everything. She’s nice enough, but doesn’t have enough experience to form her own opinions, and is easily led. Now that Elloren has turned seventeen, her Aunt Vyvian, a powerful mage and political leader, has come to take her to be wandfasted (wandfasting is a magically binding marriage contract) as part of securing a political alliance. Elloren’s uncle, however, has made arrangements for her to attend university and train as an apothecary. Vyvian offers to take Elloren to the city to outfit her, and attempts to convince her to abandon her studies and instead marry into another powerful, magical family. Not knowing any better, Elloren absorbs Vyvian’s cruel, elitist, racist views instead of trusting her own instincts, and makes both friends and enemies. Despite her aunt’s best attempts, though, Elloren insists on attending university.
The problem with university is that it encourages independent thought, and also exposes Elloren to people who are different from her, in race, attitude, culture, and socioeconomic class. These include the Lupines (werewolves, considered bestial and dangerous by most Gardnerians) selkies (part seal, part human), Kelts (losers in the last war against Gardneria), Vu Trin, Amaz (similar to Amazons), Urisk (treated as slaves, after all males were exterminated), Elves of various kinds, and the demonic-looking Icarals. While Vyvian is wealthy, Elloren’s uncle is not, so Elloren she is stuck on work-study with Urisk and Kelts who despise Gardnerians, and forced to room with Icarals who terrify her.
In a strategic error, Vyvian refuses to help with Elloren’s situation until she decides to wandfast, meaning Elloren is forced to learn to get along with a wide variety of people, many of whom don’t like her because of who she is. She makes a lot of mistakes, some of which are painfully cruel– there’s one horrific scene in which a nasty and politically powerful mage threatens the families of the Urisk and Kelt kitchen staff after Elloren tattles about their bullying– but she slowly learns to work past many of her prejudices. She’s very lucky that there are a lot of people willing to cut her a break. All this is going on in an atmosphere of growing authoritarianism that is about to take a sharp swerve into fascism. While it doesn’t touch her in the same ways as some of her fellow students, even Elloren is not exempt from the government’s racist, homophobic, misogynistic ideas and decrees.
The story of Elloren is the story of a lot of white people who have never met someone who isn’t like them, believe what they’re told by authority figures, and don’t think for themselves, who then leave for university and learn that the world is more diverse than they’ve been led to believe (I’ve known many of them). It can be a long process of back and forth, making mistakes, obliviousness, and selfishness before reaching self-awareness and beginning to consciously notice and change your views and actions. Most of the time it’s a slow process– people don’t magically change. I think this is the journey Forest wants us to see, and there are many people who can relate or who might reflect on some of the atrocious views and behaviors in this book and decide that maybe they need to change their own.
After the protests in Charlottesville, Elloren’s slowly growing awareness seemed like a story that didn’t need to be told with the same urgency that many others do, and that might even be painful for some people to read. Despite some tantalizing beginnings, it’s hard for me to recommend this book unequivocally. Forest has said she was attempting to address racism, not create a racist book, and I believe that, but it still packs a powerful punch. Here’s the thing: Forest has created a potentially rich world with a lot of characters, most of whom barely have their backstory sketched in. Even with just outlines, some of their personalities are vivid, and I wanted to know more. Where are their voices? The characters and relationships that are most interesting are the ones in the margins or beneath notice of the powers that be. I am sure some of that will be addressed in the sequel, but in choosing a single point-of-view character, Forest chose the one with the narrowest and least interesting vision. In general, I think multiple point-of-view characters in YA fiction is a technique that is heavily overused, but here, I think it would benefit the story and the readers.
In writing about race, I think it’s now more important than ever to really think about how you are doing it and what effect it’s going to have on the readers you want to reach. There are a lot of people who just aren’t going to care about Elloren’s journey if that’s the central theme of the book. I notice that Tamora Pierce blurbed the book, and she’s an author who I feel has dealt skillfully with race and class in her Circle of Magic and Circle Opens books. Forest’s writing is awkward in comparison. However, I think Forest is a good storyteller, and I’m hoping she’ll learn from the controversy over this book and use it to grow as a writer. One of the better aspects of The Black Witch is the friendships that develop as the very different characters interact with each other in new ways. This gives her opportunities to reshape her narrative in the upcoming sequels. It’s not necessary to center white people in an obvious way in a book addressing race head-on when there are so many possible relationships to explore and stories to tell.