• Page Count: 608
  • Release Date: May 2, 2017
  • Publisher: Harlequin Teen
  • My Rating: 1 star

Book Description:

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 peoples—including the fire-wielding, winged Icarals, the sworn enemies of her people—is an even more treacherous place for the granddaughter of the Black Witch.

My Thoughts:

I don’t give a lot of one star ratings, so I want to really take the time to explain why. I wanted to call this book a DNF many times, but pushed through so I could give a full overview of the plot (so, yes, there WILL BE SPOILERS).

And to clarify: yes, I do get that the main character’s racist perspective is obviously supposed to be an attempt to highlight the horrible views of those who raised her. Yes, I get that this book is probably supposed to be some allegory of white oppression and the story of a naive, sheltered girl overcoming internalized prejudice. I will address all of this in a bit.

Ok so brief (ha, lies. nothing here will be brief) overview of the story first:

Elloren and her brothers are basically Gardnerian royalty because their grandfather six generations back was the founder of Gardneria and her grandmother was the Black Witch who “saved” them by killing thousands who had oppressed the Gardnerians (the true story of what went down doesn’t come in until the end of the book). Point is, her grandmother was actually horrible but Elloren’s been raised on the rhetoric of the oppressors.

Elloren’s living with her uncle in a small town because he’s trying to keep her powers a secret and away from the schemes of her aunt & the Council. It’s obvious to the reader that Elloren has her grandmother’s super special power, but Elloren actually doesn’t find out in this book. She is the definition of clueless and spends most of the book walking around wide-eyed & confused like she was born yesterday.

The Gardnerian religion has a ton of power and wants kids to get wandfasted (basically an arranged marriage) as young teens. One day Elloren is in the woods and her friend Sage who was banished for fast-breaking shows up and gives Elloren the White Wand from legend, which is a super special wand that will probably matter in the next book’s plot. But definitely not here.

Elloren’s aunt is determined to have her wandfasted to Lukas Gray, the most handsome and eligible guy ever, but the uncle sends Elloren to university and makes her promise not to wandfast to anyone for two years. The aunt is a LOT like Mrs. Coulter from The Golden Compass with how Elloren is desperate for a maternal figure’s approval and grateful for the glamorous life the aunt offers, but then slowly realizes she’s not a good person and wants nothing to do with it.

While Elloren’s staying with her aunt, she goes to get some clothes for school with Malfoy Fallon Bane, the girl who’s predicted to be the next Black Witch. She’s like thestereotype of a mean girl x10000… she’s ridiculously cruel to Elloren nonstop throughout the story and her motivation is overly simplistic. (I’m not sure what color Elloren’s skin is besides “tan” and sparkly, but the fact that Fallon was one of the few PoC characters and reduced to the role of “evil” really didn’t help this book).

There’s a ball next and Fallon makes it clear she’s determined to be wandfasted to the perfect Lukas Gray. Buuut then Elloren plays her violin, Lukas senses power in her, and suddenly he’s kissing her and obviously wants to be wandfasted to her for his own means. But Elloren is clueless. She also meets some other people at the ball, like a creepy priest who wants the Council to elect him as High Mage so he can make sure everyone’s racial purity is tested (by iron to rule out fae blood) and they’re all wandfasted by 18.

Then all of the kids go to magic school, where Elloren continues to spew her racist nonsense. The school is made up of Kelts, Elves, fae in disguise, Icarals with wings, and a couple Lupine. There are characters with literally every color skin like pink, lavender, or green. And it seems like a typical fantasy book except now everyone’s reduced to their race in the most simplistic way (and even referred to that way… forgive me if I end up doing the same in this review because that was literally the actual focus of this book).

Elloren wasn’t aware of how feared and hated her family was until everyone who sees her freaks out because she looks just like her grandmother. She proceeds to use this as proof as to why they’re all horrible like she’s been taught. The story goes to absolutely absurd lengths to put her in sad situations… like Fallon keeps harassing and tripping her with magic, her coworkers in the kitchen physically abuse and mock her, and she’s assigned to live in a remote tower with a girl who tries to kill her the first night. She’s stuck, though, because her uncle is suddenly sick and her aunt is making sure the school keeps her in a horrible job and housing until she agrees to be wandfasted to Lukas Gray. So power is offered to Elloren via a man but she refuses… and I am not impressed because there is nothing to root for in this main character.

The story just tries so, so hard to make her the underdog:

“I can’t leave Verpax Universry because I’m at risk of being killed by a demonic, monstrous, wingless Icaral. And I have no alternative but to live with two demonic, monstrous winged Icarals and work in a place where people want to break my arms and legs.”

The next couple hundred pages could be summed up as: everyone hates everyone else. Gardnerian and Kelt students won’t go into a classroom where a Lupine student is sitting, the Lupine twins hate the Gardnerians, apparently the Icaral hate the Lupine, and on and on. I could honestly fill a review with the horrific things Elloren goes around thinking and saying about everyone, so I’ll just leave a couple examples and move on:
– “Its best to stay away from non-Gardnerians.”
– She keeps calling people “half-breeds” even though she gets indignant at the “slur” when someone refers to her that way… so she knows it’s wrong
– “How did this one get out? How did a Snake Elf come to stand in front of a lecture hall? In Professorial robes?” 
– When Elloren’s brother tells her he’s gay, she replies “you can’t be this way. You just CAN’T. You have to change.”

Elloren lives with two Icarals named Ariel and Wynter. Ariel was thrown in a cage as a child and is addicted to berries that were used to sedate her, but Ellen is devoid of any compassion or understanding about Ariel’s mental health. The Gardnerians “view meeting the gaze of a winged one to be spiritually polluting” and need to be exorcised by a priest afterward, so Elloren’s friends avoid visiting her room and recommend Elloren go to evening service with them to exorcise her roommates. One day Ariel tries to actually show up to class and this is how the professor reacts:

It’s just painful to read. But the pain of others in this book almost always ends up becoming a prop for some minimal growth and a pat on the back for Elloren. The particular situation above ends up being about how Elloren didn’t laugh and how Yvan (cute Keltic kitchen coworker dude) really sees her for the first time! He’s spent most of the book glaring at Elloren in fifty shades of anger… his sole method of communication is his “stormy eyes.” OBVIOUSLY this is the love interest. There is zero chemistry or feels there, but that’s the least of this book’s issues.

On page 291 Elloren’s upset because the entire world is out to get her, so the priest reassures her that “it is the nature of Icarals to draw evil and tribulation into the world” and to stay strong because the Golden Age is coming where the Black Witch will “smite them all. The Icarals, the Kelts, the shape shifters, ALL the infidel races.” Elloren’s only thought is for herself: “yes, but if it’s Fallon Bane she might smite me too.”

The behavior of Elloren’s coworkers and Fallon is such an absurd over-the-top caricature of cruelty that it didn’t even feel like girl hate anymore… it just felt like bad writing.

Elloren’s self-centered, oblivious POV was infuriating to read through because she has no sense whatsoever and her entire petty personality can be summed up as weak self-pity. So many of her thoughts and actions make no sense at all. Plus, she reads more like she’s 12 than 17. I’m not sure if the reader is meant to hate her or not, but there is truly nothing likable about her.

On page 302 Elloren wonders if Ariel is completely evil or not. And she realizes she doesn’t know. She doesn’t start really considering that the “Evil One” stuff in her religion MIGHT be wrong until page 350… but then she still continues to be dumb. When Yvan of the Glares lets her know that her Gardnerian clothes are made by slave labor she thinks he’s lying and is all: “why does he have to go out of his way to be so awful to me?”

So Elloren goes to the priest and this is his answer:

Elloren thinks something there might be biased, so she asks a Keltic professor who gives her the truth. She returns to learn more history, like how her people are actually “half-breeds polluted by Fae blood” and why wandfasting and the banishment of unfaithful women is now customary. The professor mentions that the Icarals probably have some wyvern blood instead of demon and “it’s easier to cast the Icarals as evil and shun them at birth than it is to admit that every race is a mix.” He tells her the history of how her grandmother wanted to kill everyone who wasn’t Gardnerian and expresses hope that the future will be one of shared resources and equality but says it will come down to the choices of individuals. The chapter ends with this:

Meanwhile, Ariel burns Elloren’s favorite possession, so Lukas Gray tortures and kills Ariel’s pet chicken. I think it’s supposed to be some turning point for Elloren when she steals Ariel a new chicken? The next couple hundred pages are cringeworthy efforts for the students from different cultures to try to understand the religions and customs of other students they’re hesitantly talking to. There are SIX pages of “uncomfortably blunt questions” about Lupine mating, with both parties judging the other for stuff that feels iffy at best (like marrying young). The writing is just extremely clunky, juvenile, and awkward at times.

Eventually her friend Aislinn has the breakthrough of “I’m finding I like meeting new people… people different from me. I’m tired of being afraid of everyone.” But even after that there are still intolerant comments galore. And I wasn’t huge on how they only started to potentially tolerate others because of a few cute guys or when people were nice to them.

Then there’s a hint that Elloren has some magical connection with wood. But that will probably come up in a sequel. Other cliche fantasy ideas are scattered around without any relevance to this particular book… there really isn’t a plot here.

Elloren’s group of friends has expanded by page 415, but she still warns Jarod (one of the Lupine twins) that a romance with Aislinn would tear her from her Gardnerian family. “It’s one thing to wish Jarod was Gardnerian in the abstract. But he isn’t… our people hate each other. No, this isn’t good. This is a road best not traveled down – a road leading straight off a cliff.”

A few pages later she’s thinking “I wonder what’s wrong with me. How can I be so drawn to a Kelt?” Then Aislinn visits with her big family and Elloren is judging everyone right and left: “It’s easy to match the other children with their mothers. I pick up the neatly attired, well-behaved children and mentally match them to Liesbeth. To Auralie I match the disheveled twin boys with tense faces.” SO many of her thoughts are just WHYYYYY.

More nonsense happens. Then Elloren catches onto the fact that there might be something more to Yvan than meets the eye because of his super speed, super strength, etc. She follows him into the woods and it’s all very Twilight. He refuses to tell her anything (and later claims she’s imagined it all), but Elloren just thinks “somehow I know I’ll be safe with him.” Hagrid Yvan takes her to where some dragons are kept in cages. Then they find a Selkie woman who was being kept by a guy as a sex slave and horribly abused… Elloren’s only thought is ”animal or not, how can he be so cruel?” She proceeds to rescue the Selkie in a drawn out plot point that’s clearly supposed to be some huge gold star for her. It’s just white savior stuff all around. This whole bit with how the women can’t defend themselves or seek help from the law was pretty horrific and handled really poorly and I just can’t even get into it right now.

Basically the story meanders around and any momentum gets lost towards the end. A lot of characters drop off the face of the earth in the second half and all of the actual plot with the council is just distant news. Page 547 is Elloren’s first and only true apology (to a woman who works in the kitchen with her): “I’m sorry I was so ignorant… and wrong, when I first came here.” She also tells a little girl that she “didn’t want to be mean” and that she isn’t anymore. And that’s that, folks.

The plot’s trying to deal with some very serious issues, but barely carries through on anything. Like the abrupt transition in this conversation is so jarring:

The creepy priest guy from the start is then elected Head Mage of the Council and sets his plans into gear. Elloren and her friends will have to be wandfasted by spring and the racial purity of their families will be tested as well. So they go to free some of the army’s dragons, which is just a brief, poorly written mess. It’s like there needed to be some action at the end, so… ready, set, GO. After they free some random dragons, Lukas Gray sends Elloren a creepy necklace and message that he’ll be back soon (because he was gone along with the rest of the plot). Wynter warns Elloren to be careful about the necklace, but she just puts it on and replies she knows what she’s doing. “It’s the right thing to do… to stay on Lukas’s good side and pretend that everything is fine and normal. I’ll wear it every day so that he finds it on me when he arrives.”So… she’s still not too bright.

On the last page Elloren goes back to talk to the Keltic professor and the Vice Chancellor comes in to say she’ll cover for the dragon-freeing miscreants. She welcomes Elloren to the resistance and THE END. I guess the next book will actually get into the plot about the White Wand, Elloren’s power, the Resistance (because we saw hints of maps and plans at one point), and the whole… story? This entire story could be summed up as “girl in a wide-eyed trance acts like an idiot for 600 pages.” There was seriously nothing to support and the whole plot got pushed to the sequel.

The book hit every single offensive topic in the most blatant way that it was clearly trying to show all of the possible things you could think that are wrong. It also felt like a children’s book talking down to the reader at times with how clear things were to everyone except Elloren. But I don’t even want to spend more time complaining about the poor execution & writing, the weak and petty characters, how simplistic everything was, etc because it just doesn’t matter when compared to the fact this was hundreds of pages of unchecked hatred and intolerance.

There is no excuse, but even if you were somehow still looking for a redemption arc… there really wasn’t one! I cannot explain how weak the story became in the end. I barely saw the growth that was implied and the entire plot turned into distant background chatter. I mean, the Fall Tournament sounded cool. So did Elloren’s dream to be an apothecary that was mentioned on the back cover. But school was mostly a vehicle for a montage of hateful scenes.

All of the pain in this book was thrown around cavalierly for the sake of the main character’s development. It’s all about her. If this story is supposed to be about a character unlearning prejudice, then we need to see something from the side of the oppressed. They only felt like props in this girl’s painfully slow growth. 

Also, there were hundreds and hundreds of pages of absolutely horrible comments before Elloren even began to think that maybe she could be wrong. Sitting through a single one of those sentences is harmful and it’s all done SO carelessly. I barely even mentioned any of the problematic comments but they were on almost every page and just kept getting worse. And the author put all of that out there without really addressing it in the end. 

If you took all of the racism, sexism, ableism, homophobic comments, and general idiocy out of this book it would probably be 50 pages long and just the intro to a story. I get that the author was trying to provide ample room for character growth here by having the character start out so ignorant. I’m not misunderstanding the intent; I’m saying it really did not work in this case. I get that this first book is setting up the rest of the series and the author wanted Elloren to unlearn what she’s been taught first, but I don’t think the way it’s approached is remotely acceptable.

The entire book turned into a narrative on racism and prejudice but felt offensively hollow because the Elves, Lupine, etc are obviously “others.” The book needed waaaaay more worldbuilding in order to parallel racism in a way that’s not so incredibly irresponsible and ignorant. I thought the simplistic way that everyone hated each other (and even Elloren’s flimsy “awakening”) felt like something out of a children’s picture book but was placed in the context of a full fantasy world that lacked the necessary complex history and explanation of power dynamics in order to feasibly depict racism. <—- that is probably my main thought. Sorry it took so long to get there.

Anyways, it was PAINFUL to read. I know the author didn’t intend to be hurtful and so irresponsible with her writing, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is. This book is coming from a major publisher. Why didn’t this stick out to anyone else? We do not want to sit through 600 pages of the MC coming to learn that “racism is bad.” I hit the character limit in my review and can’t elaborate on this but ughh we live in a world with enough hate. Let’s have fantasy worlds where readers can see themselves instead of feeling even more alienated and hurt. If you already feel like an “other” in reality, this book is just pain on top of pain.

And for the people who say “it’s just fiction, relax” (because I know I’ll get comments like this):

No. Fiction shapes how we view our world, ourselves, and everyone around us. There is no disconnect.

I didn’t go into this book intending to “hate read.” I was genuinely excited for it and at first thought it was a new favorite book with hints of favorite fantasy worlds. But in the end, there was hardly ANY magic or any of the promised plot.

It’s kind of hard to be one of the first reviewers because there’s nothing to gauge your reaction against and people who were excited about the book get angry that you’ve “ruined” it. I’ve only seen a few reviews so far from actual readers and they mostly adore this book. So all I can do is share my honest reaction and then wait for any discussion to unfold…

Thank you to the publisher for sending me an ARC. The quotes above were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.


9 comments on “Review: The Black Witch by Laurie Forest”

  1. This sounds like a disaster. First The Continent, and now this? Harlequin needs to reassess their publishing habits if they continue to produce these offensive books. Is it too much to ask for good representation of people of color in fantasy? :/ Thanks for your review.

  2. This book made me sick, literally. I only skimmed most of it because honestly, I didn’t want to spend too much time on it. But your review perfectly reflects what I thought about it. Books like this can’t be published. This shouldn’t be able to happen.

  3. Oh man, I was so excited to read this. I love witch books. I read up about the controversy last week and now after reading your review I think I’ll skip it. Thanks for such a thorough review, Cait!

  4. This book intrigued me but after reading your review I’m glad I didn’t waste my time with it. I always love how thorough your reviews are.

    • Ha “thorough” is definitely one word for this — I’m so sorry it was so long. But thanks so much for reading!! <3

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