Truthwitch by Susan Dennard

truthwitchThis monk was a rutting Bloodwitch. A creature from the myths, a being who could smell a person’s blood — smell their very witchery — and track it across entire continents. If he latched onto Safi’s or Iseult’s scent, then they were in deep, deep–
Pop-pop-pop!
Gunpowder burst inside firepots. The guards had hit the trap.
Safi reacted instantly — as did the monk. His sword swished from its scabbard; her knife came up. She clipped the edge of his blade, parrying it aside.
He recovered and lunged. Safi lurched back. Her calves hit Iseult, yet in a single fluid movement, Iseult kneeled —  and Safi rolled sideways over her back.
Initiate. Complete. It was how the girls fought. How they lived.

When witches Safiya and her best friend Iseult accidentally set up a heist on the wrong target, they are suddenly wanted by the city authorities and start to flee. Worse, Safiya is a Truthwitch, able to tell truth from lies — a powerful political weapon in the wrong hands, if anyone was to discover her secret. All they want is their freedom, but they soon run into bigger problems. The twenty-year peace truce of the Empire is about to expire, and Iseult’s guardian and Safiya’s uncle have an elaborate plot designed to prevent a war… and it relies on Safiya co-operating. There is no place for Iseult in their plans, so the girls are separated. While Safiya navigates court politics and makes a tentative ally in a foreign prince, Iseult faces the family she left behind and learns about a powerful new adversary. But whatever happens, they must first find each other again.

If it sounds like there’s a lot going on here, that’s because there is. There are many characters, each with clear but different motivations, and each pulling the plot in different directions. The exceptions are Safiya and Iseult themselves, who don’t seem to clearly want anything, except for people to leave them alone. They spend the majority of the book being pulled around by the stronger personalities who want to use them as pawns. However, I think this is a deliberate choice, as one of my favourite parts of the story was when Safiya decides to stop just reacting to the things happening around her and start making her own choices, a much needed moment of growing up.

Despite the fact that there’s a lot going on, the book tries very hard not to subject the reader to exposition dumps, which is appreciated, but occasionally I was left wondering what was going on. There’s a lot of backstory to absorb — the civil war before the twenty-year peace, a mysterious illness affecting witches, Iseult’s childhood and a sinister witch now threatening her mother, a prophecy about a pair of witches who will restore the healing wells, a Bloodwitch conflicted by the loyalty he feels to both his father and his monk’s order, and so on. I think the story could do without at least some of these plots, but thankfully some of them were resolved before the end of the book, the rest are set up for the sequel.

One of the things I really loved about the book is that you could switch the gender of any of the characters and it wouldn’t change anything. Women are just as likely to be rulers, soldiers, monks or witches as men are, and nobody comments on this. When the girls are fighting, there’s no-one yelling “oh, you got beaten by a girl!” from the sidelines.

I haven’t said much about Iseult so far, and yet I prefer her to Safiya. She’s an outsider, on the receiving end of a lot of racist abuse, and she’s quieter and more considered where Safiya does things without thinking. She’s also a Threadwitch, able to see peoples emotions but not display any of her own, but there’s a lot about her powers she doesn’t understand, not least a sinister voice in her head she keeps hearing. Most of all, I loved the friendship between the two girls, and it’s this aspect that kept me hooked and will make me pick up the sequel when it comes out early next year.

Truthwitch is available from Amazon.

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