What is The Black Witch?
A Great Winged One will soon arise and cast his fearsome shadow upon the land. And just as Night slays Day, and Day slays Night, so also shall another Black Witch rise to meet him, her powers vast beyond imagining.
So foretells the greatest prophecy of the Gardnerian mages. Carnissa Gardner, the last prophesied Black Witch, drove back the enemy forces and saved her people during the Realm War. Now a new evil is on the horizon, and her granddaughter, Elloren, is believed to be Carnissa’s heir—but while she is the absolute image of her famous grandmother, Elloren is utterly devoid of power in a society that prizes magical ability above nearly all else.
When she is granted the opportunity to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming an apothecary, Elloren is eager to join her brothers at the prestigious Verpax University and finally embrace a destiny of her own, free from the shadow of her grandmother’s legacy. But she soon realizes that the University, which admits all manner of people—including the fire-wielding, winged Icarals, the sworn enemies of all Gardnerians—is an even more treacherous place for the granddaughter of the Black Witch.
THE BLACK WITCH is a novel which I wanted to read earlier and wish I had since I would have liked to have thrown my thoughts on the book into the ring when it was suffering a surreal controversy regarding its content. For those unfamiliar with it, basically it was accused of being extremely racist by Goodreads reviewers who created a Twitter war regarding it with those who believed it was an anti-racist book. People on the sidelines viewed the entire controversy as silly because, to outsiders, it looked like a harmless YA novel. Somewhat removed from the controversy, okay by a couple of years, I’ve decided to give my own review.
The Black Witch is an entertaining yarn. Good but not great and probably best for an afternoon’s read with one big caveat. That’s my summary for the actual book’s plot, characters, and world-building. I think it just barely squeaks out a 4 out of 5. I also know EXACTLY why this book seems to draw out the frothing dragon in certain people. It’s the reason why the book isn’t a 3.75 as I rounded up because it does touch on a nerve which doesn’t get touched very often. A nerve which should be touched more often. I’ll get to that in a bit but, yes, it’s the way it handles racism or more precisely prejudice. You can’t be racist against orcs since they’re not human.
The premise is Elloren Gardner is a member of the country gentry and part of a great line of wizards. She’s, in Harry Potter terms, a Squib but that doesn’t prevent her from learning how to be an apothecary and marrying a wizard to hopefully birth a proper magician. She’s a very high ranking family, too, since the race she belongs to is called the Gardnerians. The Gardnerians are a racist bunch of twits who look down on the Kelts, fae-blooded, and various supernatural peoples of the world. Elloren Gardner is about to be wandfasted (har, har) when her uncle intervenes and gets her sent to university. Except, much to her aunt’s horror, the universe is full of OTHER KINDS OF FOLK and might poison Elloren’s mind with liberal ideals. Worse, she might end up returning with a non-pure blooded mage partner like the kind which her friend Sage ran off with.
If you guess this is a set up for Elloren to meet other people and lose some of her prejudices then, congratulations, you are part of this book’s intended readership. This feels very strongly inspired by Harry Potter, which isn’t a bad thing, and you can basically describe the protagonist with the words, “What if Hermione was raised by the Malfoys?” I’m a great believer you can’t be prejudiced against fictional races and the most strongly loathed are the Kelts (metaphors for Irish people) and people with wings. This isn’t a book where the orcs are secretly code for black people like in Bright either, even if the Gardnerians are halfway between Southern Gentry and British snobs. No, everyone is a fictional fantasy race–even the humans.
So what IS the problem with the book? Well, it’s not such a problem but I believe the issue stems from the fact the book portrays “soft racism” throughout versus the more traditional “hard racism” in YA. To give a short explanation of what I mean, hard racism is the Death Eaters and Daleks while soft racism is a Muggleborn kid being denied an invitation to Hogwarts so it could go to a Pureblood candidate. It’s the kind of racism which lots of people encounter in real life comes with all manner of justifications. A lot of people really don’t like being in the headspace of people who are repulsed by the concept of a elf-human relationship even if there’s no such thing as elves [Note: because my ancestors killed them all].
Elloren is a pearl-clutching, easily horrified naive girl who just so happens to be a bigot. Despite the fact she’s prejudiced against werewolves, a lot of her opinions as well as the opinions of her snotty rich friends are not too dissimilar to what you’ll hear in real life about minorities. The Gardenian girls talking conspiratorially about kissing (KISSING!) filthy nonhumans as well as speculating about their sex lives isn’t code but it feels like code.
The book has everything from her perspective and makes a statement, even if it’s an indirect one, that racists aren’t necessarily bad people just ignorant. I’d argue that most of them choose to be ignorant after a point and become bad people but I grew up in a household that sincerely believed the Civil War was about state’s rights–so I have both sympathy as well as condemnation for our heroine. There’s even casual moments where Elloren thinks about how the Gardnerians gloriously killed every Urisk male alive and left the females to seek husbands among them–but it was okay because they were purple-skinned savages. Those are easier to deal with because that’s closer to the hard racism view which fantasy is generally more comfortable with.
There is one area where people could perhaps have a serious issue that doesn’t relate to whether you loathe people with dragon blood or not. The book does have Elloren have a prejudice against one real life group: homosexuals. Basically, SPOILER, but her brother is gay and she doesn’t take it well. I sympathize quite a bit with people who find this a deal-breaker, even though it’s been a slow steady process of her developing new feelings about the world. This is one area where I think Elloren could have been more enlightened than her time period but it’s an uphill battle throughout the book’s 600+ pages to get her awakened to the societal injustices about her.
The prejudice element actually isn’t the focus of the book, I should note. The majority of the book is a story about a prophecy, a Chosen One, whether the Chosen One prophecy is made up, as well as a young woman coming into her own with her magical abilities. It’s stuff that I’ve seen before but is handled well enough. Indeed, if not for the fact it dealt extensively with overcoming prejudice, it would be a fairly typical urban fantasy novel. The fact it did, however, is a point in its favor rather than against it. At least in my humble opinion.
World-building wise, I found The Black Witch to be a lot stronger than most fantasy because it is implied this is a pretty awful world where the bad guys justify all of their horrific actions by saying, “the other side deserved it.” The papering over genocide, classicism, and soft resistance versus hard resistance to prejudice gives the place a more authentic feel than most fantasy worlds. At one point, our heroines’ aunt throws a bunch of nasty slurs at an Urisk woman for a minor dress making mistake only for the latter to back down because it might destroy her business to resist. That’s unfortunately all too believable. The Death Eaters wrote the history books in this world because their version of Voldemort won and that’s something teenagers need to confront because the good guys didn’t always win in history (or even often).
In conclusion, I enjoyed the book and appreciated the fact it had an unconventional heroine. However, the fact we’re dealing with a book which is about a girl who holds appalling beliefs and would be the evil girlfriend or villain in another book is something some people take personally. Humanizing racists and chronicling their journey is subject matter rarely touched upon even as learning to move past your prejudices is something my childhood certainly benefited from. However, it’s something I think a few readers were irritated by as they didn’t need to be told mixing elves and humans was bad–they’d heard plenty of stories about how mixing different humans was bad in similar tones to the point of not needing to hear any more variants. Some people don’t want to read about a privileged girl learning to be tolerant of other people, they just want to see an underprivileged one burn the system down.