The Black Witch
by Laurie Forest
Published May 2017
Goodreads: See here
Synopsis at a Glance:
Laia is a slave.
Elias is a soldier.
Neither is free.
Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.
It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.
But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.
There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.
Well this definitely wasn’t my favorite read of the year. I’m torn between the feeling that my expectations were just way too high for this book, and the feeling that this book was underwhelming as hell.
Before we start, I’d like to just remind everyone of my review rating scale. 2 stars means I thought the book was okay. I didn’t love it I like I hoped I would, and while I wouldn’t read it again, it wasn’t all bad. So please keep that in mind before anyone moves to jump on me for what I recognize is a highly divisive opinion here, where the book is mostly beloved. I still think this book probably has a lot to offer for young readers who are new to the YA Fantasy genre, but for someone who is pretty schooled it in it and in adult fantasy at this point, there’s little to nothing new or groundbreaking here.
While I appreciate Sabaa Tahir as an author, and think her prose was the best thing about this book, I just had so much trouble relating to all of the rest of it. One of the things I just can’t overlook is that this book seems to have no idea what it wants to be. Is it a YA Fantasy, or is it a YA Dystopian novel? I don’t think the author could even tell you, and it’s impossible to decipher it from what little worldbuilding is actually done in this novel.
We know it takes place in the desert, and that there’s an Empire and and a Resistance, but that’s about it. We have no idea what the rest of this world or the continent looks like. Tahir would have us believe that this Empire is a grand and far-reaching military system, but based on the map provided at the beginning of the book it’s a fairly sparse affair situated in the middle of a wasteland. There’s nothing in the text that implies how far-reaching this empire is; what these people worship; how their economy works, nothing. The people are either dumped into two categories: those in favor of the empire, or those against it, and we don’t even know how these groups came about.
The general confusion that is the world is worsened by the totally confusing introduction of the supernatural. When it’s introduced, both sides (Resistance and Empire) are certain that the supernatural are myth, but then to really confuse things Tahir introduces shadow-creatures that haunt Laia; jinn and efrit that attack certain characters; and immortal creatures called the Augers that dictate the entirety of the what happens in the plot the entire way through. It just doesn’t make sense. It’s impossible to buy that these characters have difficulties accepting the supernatural, but immediately accept the word of the Augers, characters that they don’t actually believe are supernatural beings, and allow them to dictate the entire course of the plot.
Because of this, I had trouble accepting the entire narrative flow of the plot, which flew straight into dystopian territory around 20% in when the competition factor was introduced. It makes zero sense that this militarized empire would simply accept their best and brightest students being forced into a competition to the death to name a new emperor. For one, these are teenagers (up to 20 years old) and we know for a fact that there are established older figures in this world with more control. It’s never explained how they feel about the fact that a teenager is soon to be their new Emperor, or why a more established house would simply accept the word of the Augers at face value over that of their emperor in a militarized Empire.
There’s no logic in this world, and because of that it’s impossible for readers to draw logical conclusions about it. One would have to totally draw their own conclusions based on conjecture, which is a lousy way to establish realism in a world.
That’s not even touching on the fact that this entire book is plot influencing characters, rather than the other way around (as it should be). Characters should inform on plot. They should be making decisions that shape the way the plot moves and grows. In this case, Laia and Elias both allow the plot to completely sway their decisions the entire way through. I lost track of the amount of times both characters had an enemy at swordpoint and had the opportunity to greatly diminish their personal troubles and just let them go because of reasons that are totally unexplained. Marcus was one character that would have been dead multiple times over had Elias or Laia been competent characters instead of totally incompetent.
There’s so little dimension to the characters. Everyone is either totally good, or totally bad. Even Elias, who is often making misguided decisions based off of the head in his pants, is totally a good guy a heart and it’s impossible to dispute that by the end of the book. The Commandant and Marcus are evil characters who are totally and indisputably bad the entire way through, and we know this because they’re constantly mutilating other characters and threatening them with rape. There’s no subtlety here in their characterizations, which made it incredibly difficult to think of them as real people.
All in all this was just a confusing slog for me. This is a book that can’t tell what it wants to be. Does it want to be a fantasy or dystopian? Does it want to be a story about characters overcoming oppression or recognizing their privilege and casting it off? Does it want to be a supernatural story or a story about tyrannical leaders? Ultimately, I’m not even sure the author really knows anymore, which makes it impossible for me to drum up any interest in the rest of the series. This is where I check out.
A buddy read with the wonderful Chelsea Humphrey. So sorry that this one didn’t work out for us!
🌟🌟✯ = 2.5/5 stars – rounded up for Goodreads.
What did you think of this book? What about its sequel? Have you even been disappointed by a series you thought was overhyped? Let me know in the comments section below.