Last Coven Chat of 2016: Crooked Kingdom

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Dear readers,

You may have noticed that the frequency of our posts has gone down a bit. You’re not wrong! The witches have been waylaid by life, as of late, but we are not gone. We’ll be taking our traditional winter hiatus and will be
back with more Coven Chats after the New Year breaks.

Until then, please enjoy our chat about Leigh Bardugo’s Crooked Kingdom. As always, remember that we are discussing spoilers for the book and the series at large, so if you haven’t read the books, don’t read the chat yet!

Nicola: I really liked the change in tone  in Crooked Kingdom, compared to the first book; the story flows really well from one to the other. In Six of Crows, while the characters are risking their lives and are doing something terribly dangerous and not entirely sensible, they are, broadly, in control. It was their decision to take on this heist, and they pull it off successfully. In Crooked Kingdom that’s turned on its head.

Allison: This is interesting and I completely agree. Six of Crows had a very slick, heisty feeling to it — almost like Ocean’s Eleven. All of the chaos and danger was really entertaining. This book turned that over in the best way possible. It complicated the characters in a way that I wasn’t expecting. It was more complex, emotionally.

Alyssa: True. Perhaps this has to do with how the characters overcome adversity. Even though the group’s conflict with Pekka Rollins and Jan Van Eck still drives the plot in Crooked Kingdom, the characters seem to struggle more substantially with their inner demons than they do in Six of Crows. Thus, their ability to overcome their internal conflicts is perhaps more important than their triumph over their enemies.

Nicola: I loved the re-appearance of characters like Zoya, Genya and Sturmhond (I loved all the little references to King Nikolai, too). It was done in a way that I think wouldn’t have made anything seem out of place to those who hadn’t read the original Grisha trilogy, but it added a nice touch for readers who had, especially seeing Nina’s relationship with them. I can so easily see young Zoya growing up into a stern mentor!

Nicola: Zoya and Genya, especially, were amongst my favourite characters in the original trilogy because they were so enigmatic. Neither was villainous, but likewise neither was a pure heroine. To see Nina in the same place they were – a young Grisha soldier who doesn’t always make the most sensible choices – viewing them as the responsible adults was interesting.

Allison: YES! This is one of the reasons I think Bardugo will come back to the Grishaverse. These books proved that she has a way of remixing her characters that is fresh and allows her newer story not to be overshadowed by the old. I think there’s a lot going on here that can (and will!) be developed. I know Bardugo’s new series will be in a different worldbuilding framework, but she has said she’s not done with the Grisha, so I’m looking forward to more storytelling like this.

Nicola: I really, really, really like the development of Kaz and Inej’s relationship. They both have a lot of trauma that would make it unrealistic if they were to suddenly fall into bed together, but in that sense the small intimacies they have are all the more powerful, because to touch another person for them like they do is a huge moment of vulnerability.

Allison: I thought this was a really great development, especially for a YA series. There are lots of teenagers (and people, in general), who for a variety of reasons may not feel as ruled by hormones as we sometimes get use to seeing young people portrayed. This was a complicated issue and I was so glad to see a different framework for sexuality portrayed here.

Alyssa: Yes! I also really like the development of Kaz and Inej’s relationship for the reasons both of you mention, and that these strong characters are struggling with trauma.  

Nicola: Speaking of Kaz, I really enjoyed the way we get a better understanding of whom he is in this book. I remember in our Six of Crows discussion we talked about how he was the character we all felt was the hardest to really understand, and I think that’s still true in this book, but to a lesser extent. I mean, there were times when I thought his brutality was purely for survival, but at the same time I was never quite sure if he really had kidnapped and buried Pekka Rollins’ young son. He manages to play the line between ‘brutal enough to survive’ and downright cruel.

Allison: I enjoyed the fact that we don’t get to push Kaz into a “white hat/black hat” place. Inej is firmly in the “criminal with a heart of gold” category. We understand her crime and can easily justify her actions because ultimately, she is noble. Kaz, on the other hand, doesn’t get “outed” in this book as secretly noble, which I love. He stays firmly in that “grey” area and refuses to get out. I think Inej’s understanding of that fact complicates her as well, in a way I wasn’t expecting.

Alyssa: I love that all of the characters–and especially Kaz–are complex and can’t be pigeon-holed. Kaz remains complicated and morally ambiguous, and he’s just as likely to act brutally as nobly. Jesper is also a complicated character who has done “bad things,” but he feels more shame and empathy than Kaz as a result. Jesper is not cruel in the same way that Kaz is. Perhaps, this has something to do with the fact that Jesper has a father who loves him, whereas Kaz has been abandoned or betrayed by those he’s loved.

Nicola: I loved Jesper’s father. In a story like this, the parents naturally can’t be present much because then there’d be no story, but in contrast to his friends, he’s the only one who ever had anything like a choice in the matter. Wylan’s father disowned him, Nina was taken to join the Second Army as a child, Kaz’s family is dead, and Inej was abducted and sold. Jesper, on the other hand, chose to avoid his father out of shame, and in spite of all that his father still loves him and tries his best to look out for him.

Allison: And it makes sense that he would come looking for him. It also puts the little world the crew has built for themselves into sharp relief. They are playing a dangerous game, an adult game, and the arrival of Jesper’s father complicates that dynamic significantly. We get to see that yes, they are still children, but also they’ve entered a world where there are no children. The underbelly of Ketterdam doesn’t allow for childhood.

This is part of what makes Kaz such a complex character, but really is what makes Bardugo’s characterization really masterful. She’s very carefully laid out for readers what happens when children are forced into servitude, sex trades, poverty and wars: they become adults, and often they become criminals. When Jesper’s father arrives, we see that very clearly.

Jesper had the opportunity to be a child and he chose against it, but the others did not and we get a chance to really see the horrors of the Grishaverse because they are contexualized in such a way that we understand that not everyone is having this same experience (as opposed to the Shadow and Bone series where war has taken over everyone’s lives and there are no “children”). However, there are university students in Ketterdam that are having a very “normal” late adolescence, which Jesper is supposed to be having. That experience exists right alongside what Kaz’s crew has always had. I think it’s remarkable commentary on how privilege and the lack thereof, so often exist literally on top of one another.

Nicola: Yes! And I think we see that in a different way with Wylan, too. Jesper doesn’t come from a wealthy background, but he comes from a loving one. Wylan, on the other hand, is more traditionally privileged, but because of his father he was also deprived of the chance to be a normal teenager, even though his father had the means to allow him to do so.

I cried when Matthias died. To be honest, Matthias was probably my least favourite of the group, so if someone had to die I’m glad it was him, but still! Nina’s one of my favourites so I felt sad by proxy.

Alyssa: Matthias is also probably my least favorite character of the group, but I may like his character development the most. While all of the characters have struggled with and overcome a lot of internal and external conflicts, Matthias perhaps evolves the most–because of his love for Nina.

I think this series needs someone like Matthias, whose personality we may not like, but who is transformed by his love for “the enemy.” Nina is also one of my favorite characters, and I felt sad for her when Matthias dies. And yet, I also like that Nina does not seem devastated by his death, and we are left feeling hopeful about her future.

Allison: I was sad about Matthias, but like both of you, Nina is one of my favorite characters so I’m hoping this means we’re going to see more of her. I’m hoping this twist is an opening for another series. I think it seems clear from this book that Bardugo isn’t done with the Grisha. It seems to me that there are too many big worldbuilding plotlines left open for her to be done with it.

Nicola: Yes! I definitely feel like the Grishaverse is Bardugo’s “Middle-earth”, so to speak, in that it’s her one world she’ll keep returning to.

Alyssa: I’m also hoping for another series set in the Grishaverse, and I’d love to see more of these characters. But I’m also glad that this series ends without a lot of ambiguity and loose-ends; we have closure. I also like that this series includes characters from the Grisha trilogy, so that we have a satisfying end to both series.

Allison: I feel like Crooked Kingdom gives us a close to one part of the story, but leaves open a whole world of storytelling for Bardugo’s future, which I confess, I love! Thanks everyone for joining us today. Warmest wishes for your holiday season and we’ll see you again in 2017!

Allison, Alyssa and Nicola

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Coven Chat: Empire of Storms

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Happy Halloween, witches! Today we’re having our discussion of Sarah J. Maas’ Empire of Storms. Remember that in a Coven Chat we spoil and spoil and spoil. Don’t read on if you aren’t caught up on the series.

Allison: First off, let me say that I found Empire of Storms just as addictive and completely engrossing as all of the books in this series. I’m actually really excited to read it again. I felt like a lot of the action in previous books is starting to come together in EoS in a deeper way.

Alyssa: This series is really addictive and I reread it every year when a new book comes out. I can’t help myself! I love that each additional book is much more expansive in its worldbuilding and cast of characters, and that QoS and EoS reintroduced us to some of the characters from The Assassin’s Blade.

Nicola: Yes, agreed. I noticed a shift in QoS when characters from the novellas like Lysandra and Arobynn started appearing, and even more so in this book with Ansel’s return and the appearance of the Silent Assassins. It really feels like all those story threads from the first few books in the series are being drawn together towards the ending, and I love it.

Speaking of endings, can we talk about the end of this book for a second? I was really not expecting any of it, and I stayed up late because I just HAD to finish it – then I couldn’t sleep because I was fretting about Aelin. Seriously, that ending was one of the most shocking I’ve read in a long time.

Allison: I really didn’t expect the ending at all, but it was clear that Aelin did! I don’t know what I was expecting. I mean, I think we knew that some kind of showdown was coming between Maeve and Aelin, but I thought that perhaps Maeve would offer a bargain of some kind for assistance in the war.

I think that Maas started putting some serious distance between us and Aelin in this book to support the ending and the next book, which I assume will rely heavily on the characters she built up in this storyline, like Lysandra, Aedion and the witches. I loved the deeper characterization of Manon and the Thirteen in this book. I’m actually hoping that we get some novellas about the witches, or possibly a spinoff series.

Alyssa: Yes, I’d love a spinoff series or novellas about the witches! Manon and the Thirteen are some of my favorite characters, and they really help sustain this series. While I’m fond of the characters in Aelin’s inner circle that dominate the first few books, I really like that HoF, QoS and EoS introduce us to new characters who exist outside of Aelin’s sphere of influence.

Nicola: I wasn’t sure about Manon in HoF, but as the series has progressed she’s really grown on me, and I really like the relationship between her and the Thirteen. The fact that they’re more loyal to each other than the Ironteeth as a group speaks volumes about their relationship, and I find it fascinating that Asterin and the others show such loyalty to Manon, when the Ironteeth witches are, supposedly, cold-hearted and cruel. They’re much more human than they would like to think.

Allison: I think it will be interesting to see how the reveal that the Ironteeth clan-leaders have been manipulating their offspring to be so ruthless in coming books. It’s clear that the Thirteen are just as “emotional” as Manon, so we can’t necessarily dismiss her feelings as purely being due to her heritage.

Alyssa: I love Manon’s identity as half Ironteeth, half Crochan, and that she experiences so much character growth in HoF, QoS and EoS. I love that she’s complex and conflicted; that she upholds as well as questions her beliefs and personality traits, since she stays cold-hearted and ruthless but she also begins to value hope and love above all else…her humanity more than her upbringing as a monster. Manon will likely have a very significant role in the final book, now that she’s discovered she’s the Crochan Queen, and I can’t wait to see that storyline play out. She may be my favorite character now.  

Allison: Speaking of favorite characters: Lysandra!!! I love her so, so much. There’s this scene where she’s in her snow leopard form and she’s resting her head in Aelin’s lap and I was just so damn happy. I love that she is so fierce and so loyal and that she and Aelin have all these secret machinations.

Nicola: Yes! I love Lysandra. She’s fast becoming my favourite character. She’s just so determined and protective and just damn perfect. And I love how Aelin starts to really trust her in this book. Aelin’s always had issues with things like sharing power, trusting women and general jealousy, and now she’s at the point where she trusts Lysandra to pretend to be her for the rest of her life. It’s a HUGE bit of character development for Aelin, and it shows how different Lysandra is from the vain, shallow courtesan Aelin once believed her to be.

Alyssa: I love Lysandra and her romance with Aedion too! It’s almost like she’s become the heroine of this series (along with Manon, perhaps). And I don’t get irritated with her in the same way that I sometimes get irritated with Aelin. I’m curious to see what happens when she plays Aelin!

Allison: Aedion, please forgive Lysandra right away! Lysandra, please forgive Aedion back for being a leetle too obsessed with his cousin… I’m also curious to see how Lysandra “plays” Aelin.

I’m thrilled to see Lysandra’s character get more time and energy, but I admit was frustrated by what’s happening with Rowan’s character in this book. I was a huge fan of Rowan in HoF, but he hasn’t developed much beyond stoic-Fae-male and that’s a little bothersome for me. He’s SO objectified! I mean, I want to defend Rowan here and say all the things that I’d say if a female character was getting this kind of treatment.

Alyssa: Yes. Even though I think Rowan might be the best “mate” for Aelin, he is a less interesting character in QoS and EoS than he was in HoF. He loses some of his depth when he falls in love with Aelin, and he is objectified!  I feel like Rowan’s intense (obsessive? possessive?) love for Aelin is his whole identity now. Honestly, I’ve sort of lost interest in Aelin’s love story in this series and I’m more invested in the secondary characters’ relationships: Lysandra/Aedion, Manon/Dorian, etc. I actually find their relationships more romantic than Aelin and Rowan’s–even if they are “mates.”

Allison: I’m conflicted about the “mating” conceit that SJM has developed for both her series. It sometimes creates an excuse for toxic masculinity that doesn’t always get checked. Some of it feels cheap alongside the amazing depth that she’s created for her female characters.

Nicola: I’ve been re-reading the series since reading EoS, and while reading the novellas something struck me: What does Aelin being Rowan’s mate mean for Celaena/Sam?

Allison: Ohhhh, I hadn’t even thought of that.

Nicola: I feel like the notion that she’s fated to be with Rowan cheapens her first love, as though the future she and Sam imagined could never have materialised. And what about Rowan’s supposed mate? I really hope that this is explored in the last book. Weirdly, I also feel like Rhys gets way more character development, even though we don’t see his POV in the ACOTAR books.

Allison: I completely agree with you about Rhys. I just re-read ACOTAR and ACOMAF and he sort of “corrects” some of that toxic masculinity, but there’s that same attitude of “Fae males are just like that” that I’m not reacting to well.

Alyssa: I agree. What’s supposed to be a romantic conceit is getting annoying and problematic for the reasons you both mention. Also, “mating” seems more unnecessary and confusing in this series than in ACOTAR.

Allison: Completely. In ACOTAR it takes center stage because ACOTAR is up front a more emotional book, Feyre’s relationships are very important.

Alyssa: I suppose an argument in favor of the “mating” conceit is that it’s important considering they are Fae and immortal. But I find the toxic masculinity problematic, too. It does seem like these books argue that all of that behavior is not just normal, but something we should desire. I wonder if that’s a problem with the Fae/vampire trope in general?

Allison: Yeah, I feel that way too. I think in ACOTAR there is a lot of condemnation for the extreme that it goes to. Even in the first book, you can see the seeds for Tamlin being so possessive and Rhys’ commitment to Feyre’s freedom (and fighting his nature) is the antidote. I think the mating concept feels out of place and kind of confusing in this series though.

Alyssa: It’s a bit tacked on that we find out near the end of EoS that Aelin has been keeping secret her realization that Rowan is her mate. But she kept a lot of secrets from Rowan and everyone else in EoS. Honestly, I found that secret and some of the other reveals slightly irksome and perhaps too convenient.

Nicola: Aelin keeping secrets was something that didn’t sit right with me, not because it’s not in-character (it is), but because she used to be the reader’s main POV character, and now she’s keeping secrets from us. I’m not against the whole ‘trick-the-reader’ thing (I love it in Six of Crows), but I don’t think it works when the character used to be the main POV character and now there are a lot of things kept secret from the audience.

Alyssa: Yes, that’s a really great point. I think that’s why Aelin’s keeping secrets didn’t quite work for me as well.

Allison: And it wasn’t just a couple of things, but an entire plotline that we don’t get to see and that isn’t really even hinted at. I like it when we get to know that something is going on, but just not what exactly. I felt like there was a big shift in tone in this book in a lot of ways.

I’m just going to say it: the sex didn’t work for me in this book. I’m all about there being sex in YA books, I guess I’m just not sure how I feel about it being erotica. There’s something about an adult writer, writing this kind of stuff for teenagers that makes me really uncomfortable. Perhaps I’m a bit prudish.

Alyssa: Yes, while Maas’s depictions of sex have always been more mature than most authors of YA, it becomes even more adult in this book. It’s strange because before I reread HoF and QoS, I thought that Aelin and Rowan had already had sex; but they don’t have sex until the middle of EoS! So in some ways, the fact that Aelin and Rowan wait is typical YA. But, the erotica in EoS and Maas’s books in general (even when the characters are not in fact having sex) makes the YA categorization problematic. I’m also a bit uncomfortable with Maas’s books being for teens (14 and up).

Allison: I wasn’t disturbed by this at all in ACOTAR. It’s clear from the beginning that the content is much more mature in that way, but I feel really uneasy about the way it’s developing in this book.

Nicola: It’s made me uncomfortable, too, especially when I consider just how uncomfortable I would have been to read that stuff as a teenager. I was a pretty prudish teen, so my experience is by no means typical for teenagers, but reading sex scenes like that would have really upset me a book so far into a much-loved series simply because at the age I started reading books like ToG I wasn’t emotionally ready for books like EoS.

And IMO it’s not just sex, but violence as well. It’s always been a very violent series, of course, considering the main character is an assassin and the story opens in a death camp, but in earlier books it was less graphic and more implied. For instance, there’s a scene in TOG when one of the competitors has been disemboweled. It’s a horror-filled scene (especially when Celaena points out that the man’s tendons had been severed so he had to lie there watching the creature sharpen its claws before he died), but it’s nowhere near the description of one man screaming as the creatures in EoS disembowel him.

Allison: I have to say that for me, this book is absolutely not YA, which is troublesome, given that it’s the fifth book in this series. I feel like this was not a great time for such a dramatic shift in content. I’m an adult reader, so my perspective is different, but I don’t love thinking about how teen readers might perceive this shift.

Nicola: Yes, I agree. I think a lot of teen readers would just take it in their stride, but for others this book will be the turning point where the series is no longer something they feel comfortable reading, which I guess isn’t really fair to them when it’s so late in the series.

Alyssa: I’m not sure if this is true or merely speculation, but I’ve seen claims online that the series has transitioned from YA to New Adult with Empire of Storms.  But, whether EoS is still officially YA or not, I wonder if teens are less shocked by this shift than we might think since they have likely already read ACOTAR and might want and expect Rowan and Aelin to have a more erotic relationship. And those fans that ship Chaol might have cared more about the shift with HoF to Rowan as Aelin’s love interest. It’s almost like ACOTAR attempts to bridge the shift between the first and second half of the series.

Allison: This has me thinking about the way that the Harry Potter books got more and more intense as the characters grew out of middle grade age and into YA. Perhaps something similar is happening here? Aelin is aging out of a YA audience (she’s 19 now), so the books are too?

J.K. Rowling caught a lot of flak for that while the Harry Potter series was still being written, for the darkness and violence. I remember that while the last few books were coming out that people were angry that as the characters aged so did the maturity, and Rowling’s response was that she believed her readers were aging as well and could handle it. I think that on one hand, that’s true in a real time perspective, but on the other hand, when the books are complete, who is the audience for a series that undergoes that kind of dramatic transformation?

Nicola: I was thinking about Harry Potter, too. I was 9 when I started reading the series, and 17 when the final book came out, so I very much grew up with the series and likely would have stopped reading altogether if the later books were at the same maturity level as the earlier ones.

What I also find interesting is that Maas originally wrote ToG as an adult fantasy novel, and it was her agent (or publisher?) who suggested she market it as YA. So it’s possible she had always intended to incorporate more mature elements later on in the series.

Allison: That’s interesting. I think it will be interesting to see where the series heads next. I know we’re all looking forward to the next book… AND THAT CHAOL NOVELLA! Thanks so much for joining us. Our next Coven Chat will be about Crooked Kingdom in November.

 


Coven Read: Susan Dennard’s Truthwitch

21414439Well, we said we’d discuss Truthwitch in January and now it’s February. What can we say? Life happens. Still! It’s Truthwitch Tuesday and we’re ready to talk Witchlands with you.

Remember, ahead lie spoilers. If you haven’t read Truthwitch yet, don’t read on! 

Allison: One of the things that I really loved about Truthwitch is that it felt familiar and fresh at the same time. The alter-verse aspect of the Witchlands and its correlations to our ideas about Europe evoke a similar feel to Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse and there’s a certain element of Dennard’s magical framework that calls Sarah J Maas’ Throne of Glass to mind.

Nicola: I loved the European feel to the world! A lot of high fantasy settings are vaguely pre-industrial/feudal European, but the Witchlands feels more historical European than ‘Standard Mediaeval Fantasy Setting’. While I love reading about fantasy worlds that are based on other world cultures, as a European reader I do have a soft spot for a well-constructed European-esque world, and the Witchlands hits the spot (though I wouldn’t complain if future books expanded the world into Middle Eastern or African AUs!). I particularly liked Veñaza City; I visited Venice last year and fell in love with the city, so it’s no surprise I appreciated seeing a fantasy version of it in the Witchlands.

Alyssa: I’m not sure if you two saw this youtube video in which Susan Dennard explains that the Witchlands are loosely based on Imperial Europe. Her fascination with the small republics that were able to stay independent during centuries of war between the Venetian, Austrian-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires greatly inspired her writing this series. I love that her alternate Imperial Europe includes witcheries–which significantly influence political and social structures.

Allison: Yeah, the idea that magic influences everything from the personal to the political (and global, in the case of the Cahr Awen) makes a lot of sense to me — of course if there are people with all this immense power running around, it’s going to shape everything about the world. I’m enjoyed the fact that magic wasn’t just a feature of Dennard’s worldbuilding, but the force that defines it. It’s also a very cool idea that magic is “real” in that there are actual threads connecting people, emotions and interpersonal interactions.

Nicola: What did you think of the whole Threadsister/Thread-family thing? Personally, I loved the focus on Safi and Iseult’s platonic friendship; so often in YA the most significant relationship for the protagonist is romantic, which I love, but it’s so nice to see a strong non-romantic relationship.

Allison: It’s probably no surprise that I love the idea of Safi and Iseult’s relationship being the primary focus. I like that Dennard didn’t hold back about it being the primary relationship either. I love the idea that they are more than friends, that there’s a “more than friends” that isn’t romantic. I think it’s so normalized to see stories where two men have a strong homosocial relationship, but not so much with women. It’s one of my favorite things about the book. I love the idea that Thread-family is built in so many different kinds of ways– anger, love, compassion, just basic human stuff. It’s a really cool idea that there’s a tangible way to understand how we’re bound together.

Alyssa: I love this concept too! As you both point out, romance is the dominant relationship in most YA (and fiction in general). And in fantasy, in particular, there’s the tradition of bromances having centerstage. So what makes Truthwitch special and very refreshing is that the Threadsisters’ friendship is the most important relationship. I also really like that Merik and Kullen are Threadbrothers, making male friendship important too.

Nicola: I don’t know if either of you ever read Something Strange and Deadly (if not, you should!), but in that series, the idea of a ‘found’ family is treated as a valuable and precious thing. Eleanor loves her mother and brother, but there are complexities to those relationships that aren’t found in the Spirit-Hunters’ unwavering support for each other. I have no doubt that if the Spirit-Hunters lived in the Witchlands they’d be bound by the same Threads that link Safi and Iseult, Merik and Kullen. It’s interesting to see how Dennard follows on the same theme in Truthwitch but adds a magical component to it.

Alyssa: I love that Dennard created the phrase Mhe verujta, which means in Nomatsi “trust me as if my soul were yours,” and how valuable this concept is for romantic love (Heart-Threads) as well as non-romantic love.  

AllisonMhe verujta got me right in the feels, because I think we all want to feel that way with someone, whether it’s non-romantic love or romantic love. Dennard has a knack for exploring non-romantic relationships in a way that I really appreciate. That the bond between Thread family is more than other relationships was especially powerful because I do think in most fiction that romantic and familial relationships are portrayed as the most influential and powerful. It’s especially intriguing to me in Truthwitch that she decided to make these bonds tangible (and visible to Threadwitches).

Nicola: Yeah, I really liked that there’s a palpable quality to these relationships in the Witchlands; it contrasts the way that fantasy in particular often focusses on shared blood or marital alliances. The concept of Threads is one of my favourite parts of the worldbuilding, not just in the way they represent relationships but also in the paradoxical way that Threadwitches are constantly barraged by other people’s emotions yet expected to suppress their own. I’m excited to see more of the Threads in the next book!

Allison: Me too. It’s cool to think about how the Threads will play into the larger idea of the Origin Wells and the Cahr Awen. I saw the reveal about Safi and Iseult being the Cahr Awen coming, but I’m really interested in how the narrative itself played out. Dennard has managed to fit quite a lot of complex worldbuilding into one novel, especially given the ensemble narrative, which I thought added a lot to my understanding of the Witchlands, overall.

Nicola: I really liked the ensemble narrative. They’re hard to pull off, but each character’s motivation, and the resulting tension and conflict, felt so real and important to me. Merik clashes with Safi over Iseult’s safety because he’s trying to save his people, while Safi cares most about her Threadsister, and even though I favoured saving Iseult I could completely appreciate both of their perspectives. Aeduan’s probably the POV character for whom we get the least sense of underlying motivation, but there’s still some indication of family loyalty (or perhaps fear) that drives him to pursue Safi.

Alyssa: Yes, I like the ensemble narrative too and I think it works well overall in Truthwitch. I also like that we don’t know Aeduan as well as the other POV characters. He remains a bit of a mystery in terms of his motivation and loyalty. He’s a “bad boy” who may be “good”–especially if he fall in love with Iseult. I really enjoyed his complex feelings towards Iseult because of his “life-debt” and his confusion when it comes to trust and loyalty. Will he follow through on his sworn duty to protect the Cahr Awen or will he try to capture the Truthwitch for his father?

Allison: I found Aeduan incredibly intriguing. I feel like we got a pretty good sense of who some of the other characters are, but not as much with him. I think we’ll see much more of him in the next book. I thought the end was brilliant, by the way. It was one of those endings that blew the story open entirely. I’m really excited to see what happens next. I get the impression that we’re going to see a whole new side to Safi and that really excites me.

Alyssa: Yes, Aeduan is intriguing. I love that his witchery makes him very vulnerable and yet it’s such a powerful witchery. The Monastery protects him from a world that wants to kill him because he is a Bloodwitch; yet, he did not choose that life and is not a true believer in the Cahr Awen. He seems to be the most complex and conflicted character in this series. Which is why I’m really curious to find out what he does in the next books.

I look forward to seeing more of Vaness and the Empire of Martok, too, in Windwitch. And Safi. She really embraces her powers at the end of Truthwitch when she realizes that she “can do anything.” She demonstrates such bravery and strength when she gives herself over to Vaness in exchange for a trade agreement that benefits Merik and Nubrevna. I wonder how she and Vaness will get along in the next book. How will their relationship develop? Will they become friends? How will her time with Vaness and in Martok change her and her relations with Iseult and Merik? The ending definitely left me wanting to know more.

Nicola: Yes! The ending was everything the ending of a first book in a series should be. It wrapped up some storylines and opened up some others. I don’t even really count it as a cliffhanger, because it’s a natural resolution to the core conflict that drives the book (maybe not the resolution we expected, but not one we didn’t expect, either), and I expect it will form a major part of the conflict in the second book, rather than being something that gets resolved quickly in chapter 1. I’m so excited to see the fallout for Safi and Vaness, Iseult and Merik.

Allison: Needless to say, we’re looking forward to finding out what happens next in Windwitch, set to publish in 2017. Thanks for joining us today and let us know what you thought of Truthwitch in the comments or on Facebook!

In book magic and mayhem,

Allison, Alyssa and Nicola



Coven Reads Discussion: White is for Witching

White is for Witching, by Helen Oyeyemi  is CBC’s first book in our “Coven Reads” series. The book was a 2009 Shirley Jackson Award finalist and in 2010 won the Somerset Maugham Award. Oyeyemi’s fascination with fairy tale and legend suffuse this elegiac text, where the modern and gothic meet to create a contemporary novel that evokes the Brontës in mystery and the horrors a house can conceal.

There’s something strange about the Silver family house in the closed-off town of Dover, England. Grand and cavernous with hidden passages and buried secrets, it’s been home to four generations of Silver women—Anna, Jennifer, Lily, and now Miranda, who has lived in the house with her twin brother, Eliot, ever since their father converted it to a bed-and-breakfast. The Silver women have always had a strong connection, a pull over one another that reaches across time and space, and when Lily, Miranda’s mother, passes away suddenly while on a trip abroad, Miranda begins suffering strange ailments. An eating disorder starves her. She begins hearing voices. When she brings a friend home, Dover’s hostility toward outsiders physically manifests within the four walls of the Silver house, and the lives of everyone inside are irrevocably changed.

Our discussion veers away from our usual commitment to providing spoiler free commentary, so those who haven’t read the book may want to revisit this conversation later, as we do reveal some of the pivotal plot points in the text. Those who have already read the book, read on and give us your take in the comments!

6073584White is for Witching tends to evoke strong feelings from its readers, what was your immediate reaction?

Allison: I started the book in the afternoon and read through ‘til I finished. As soon as I was done, my first reaction was: “I should not have read this at night” and then “That was so good” and after that “I’m going to make someone else read this.” Shortly thereafter, I popped it in the mail and the book made its way to Annie.

Annie: I quite literally could not put it down. I almost made myself late (maybe I was late and I’m revising) to a social deal because I had to immediately reread the book. As soon as I finished it I thought, “Wait. Wait. Wait! What the hell!?” All of which was followed by the need to contemplate the book very carefully. So I read it again. I read it three times in two days.

Maria: I was very confused when I started reading the book –I wasn’t sure who the characters were and it was hard to discern the places where the narrators switched. It took me quite a while to realize that one of the narrators was the house itself, even though it’s clearly labelled “29 barton road.” The book seemed like a puzzle to me – pieces of information from different narrators and different time periods all jumbled together. The more I read, the more interested I became.

Allison: I had the same problem and I think it’s a pretty common one, from reviews I’ve read. Ultimately, it works, I think because the pace moves so quickly that you get drawn in, but the first fifty pages or so were a period of confusion for me. Quickly, I became invested in the mystery of what was going on. The consternation of not being able to pin anything down made me ravenous to know what happened next.

Maria: Like Annie, when I finished, I immediately went back to the beginning and started reading it again. It doesn’t begin in the middle of a sentence, like Finnegan’s Wake, but I think White is for Witching shares some similarities with Joyce’s enigmatic final work. It is also structured as a never-ending cycle; the beginning doesn’t really make sense unless you’ve read the rest of the book. And there are quite a few places throughout the book where a single word (the last one in the sentence) is separated from the rest of the text because it is also the first word of the next sentence. So as a reader, you’re constantly looking backwards and forwards, to the past and the future.

Allison: Yeah, the way Oyeyemi plays with time is so cool. I hadn’t thought of it like that, but the slippery nature of the narrative’s timeline is mesmerizing. I too, went back and read through the first few sections again, immediately after finishing.

Annie: There’s a polyvocality to the book in a lot of places that sometimes slams back into a univocality dominated by the house. I agree with you two about how Oyeyemi deals with narrative and historical time, and I think the kind of crashing between multiple voices and one voice also does a lot for the movement in time. The temporal movement becomes so fluid in some places and so jagged and frightening in others that it makes me think of correspondences to generational events that feel epochal and epochal events that feel generational–death, war, violence, imperialism, and all of the legacies that spring out of those things. Love does this, too, right? There are speaking parts that seem temporally incongruous, and it’s difficult to tell what time they are coming from, or if they are coming from living people.

Alyssa: This is definitely the most challenging and confusing book I’ve read in many years (probably since Joyce, so I like Maria’s comparison). I’ve been reading a lot of YA and commercial fiction as of late, so I’m used to rather straightforward plots. I know I should read White is for Witching at least twice, and since I’ve only read it once (and just finished it minutes ago), I’m still very confused. Like all of you, I think it’s amazing how Oyeyemi plays with time and narrative. I also was fascinated by the repetition of certain narrative details and themes. I would love to know more about her creative process while writing and revising this book. I haven’t done any research yet, but I’d like to look at reviews and author interviews. I’m going to let all of you discuss and gain a better understanding of the book by reading what you say below. Such a wise group of witches. Thank you!

What struck you about the characters (the house included)?  PBB GRID.indd

Allison: This book reminds me so much of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson (which I recommended last week), so Miri, and the Silver family in general didn’t surprise me much. However, the house having its own voice in the narrative threw me a little at first. Eventually, my fascination with it grew into that strange liking you often get for truly well-written villains.

Maria: I agree about the house. It’s such an interesting figure- trapping the Silver women in an attempt to protect them. I don’t know if “protect” is the best verb to use here, but it seems like there is something motherly about its behavior- especially when it traps Jennifer. The house explains, “Jennifer really meant to abandon her daughter, and how could I allow that?” Of course, the house also seems to gain sustenance from the Silver women, so its instincts are also predatory.

Annie: I loved Sade and Ore and the Paul even though he is a minor character. The Paul is gentle, which is difficult to be in this world. The Paul gives sustenance in a way that generationally precedes Luc, and the best moments in Luc’s struggle to nurture and feed Miri seem to come from the Paul.

Sade is an exceptionally deep character. She knows and sees so much. Early in the story, before the house begins to really attack her, she brings a kind of warmth to Luc and the home (not the house) that no one ever really does, not even Lily when she was still living. Sade always reminds the reader that there is an outside, too. When she takes food to the Immigration Removal Centre, when she turns up the radio to hear the devastating report about the Chinese immigrants, when she speaks to Ore and warns her and helps her, Sade pushes against the crushing insularity of the house and, really, of Dover as the story presents it.

Allison: I think Sade is our first indication that something is truly wrong with the house from an outside perspective. The Silvers are so accustomed to it that as a reader, I think you start to believe it’s “normal,” within the text at least. Ore functions in much the same way, she gives us the go-ahead to understand that the house isn’t “right” in the world of the novel.

Maria: I loved Ore too. She’s such an interesting character, and she’s one of the only narrators who isn’t part of the Silver family (depending on if you consider the house a member of the family or not). She provides a bit of an outsider’s perspective on the family, and Miri especially. She also gives the reader a more recognizable term for the goodlady: “soucouyant.”

Annie: Ore means so much to this story in so many different ways. She is a fighter and heroine, but also a friend and a lover who has a clear perspective in the way that only someone outside of the house can. I agree with Maria about Ore’s ability to clarify what is actually going on in the house and the unpleasant truth of Eliot.

Allison: Oh my lord, Eliot. I did not see that kind of crazy coming. His obsession with Miri, as it unfolded, was actually a little shocking to me.

Maria: I was also caught off guard by Eliot’s obsession, Allison.

Allison: I think though that as much as Eliot eventually disturbed me, Ore balanced him out. His love for Miri is selfish, while Ore’s is much less so. Ore’s sections of the narrative paint Miri as a whole person, one who is deeply flawed and damaged, but one who can love and who has escaped the world the house builds. Ore is the reader’s window into the surreal world of the house and her part of the narration does so much to ground the frightening aspects of the book and make them real. She and Sade are both the “comforting” characters for me, the ones who make some sense of the confusion that lots of the narrative evokes.

Annie: Ore has an innate intelligence and ability to trust herself that helps her implement Sade’s help and thereby avoid being devoured by the house or destroyed by the Silver women or Eliot. Ore’s family is a very vital rendering of the kind of Englishness that (despite her skinhead cousins Adam and Sean) resists the monolithic pathological nature of the house and the chauvinism and violence t18330843hat fills it and feeds it. Ore’s home is full of people, messy incongruous people, but people who love each other very much. We find out that her parents did everything they could to be able to foster Ore, and it’s clear that she and her family belong to each other. It’s so telling that even cousins Adam and Sean express some distaste for Dover, too.

Though the book isn’t exactly horror, it definitely has some terrifying and supernatural elements. What parts of the book scared you the most?

Maria: Hands down, my favorite scene is the one where Miranda goes through the trapdoor into the small room below the house, and sees the ghosts of her mother, her grandmother, and her great-grandmother sitting around the table set for four. Miranda’s description of her grandmother and great-grandmother (Jennifer and GrandAnna) is stunning:

They leaned forward anticipating a meal. They were naked except for corsets laced so tightly that their desiccated bodies dipped in and out like parchment scrolls bound around the middle. They stared at Miranda in numb agony. Padlocks were placed over their parted mouths, boring through the top lip and closing at the bottom. Miranda could see their tongues writhing.

Perhaps “stunning” isn’t the adjective I should be using- “terrifying,” “scary,” or “disturbing” might be more appropriate, but there is something beautiful about Oyeyemi’s attention to detail here. I was transfixed, fascinated, even though I knew I should turn away from it (especially when Jalil’s fingers start coming through the holes in the wall). Somehow, I didn’t have nightmares after reading White is for Witching, even though it’s a very dark book.  I’m curious if you ladies feel similarly, or if the book did thoroughly creep you out?

Allison: As I said before, I finished the book when it was late and our house was quiet, too quiet maybe… It wasn’t that the book gave me nightmares, but it left me feeling breathless and just unable to sleep. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It took me weeks to get over this book.

The scene you’re talking about really got to me — it sends chills down my spine to read the quote you pulled, but I think for me, the entire time Ore was in the house was what scared me most. I think it’s because she’s the one we relate to, as readers; she’s our vehicle into Miri’s world. Up until that point I think I thought that a lot of Miri’s weirdness was, like, in her own head, you know? Miri seems like a pretty text-book “unreliable narrator” and anything from Eliot or the house’s perspectives was clearly not to be trusted from the beginning, so when Ore goes there, you trust what happens to her… and what happens to her is one of the scariest things I’ve ever read.

Annie: No, no nightmares, but a lot of contemplation and general feelings of being disturbed. The scenes in which the house is unabashedly bigoted made me shudder because they have a particularly visceral quality to them. When Miri tries to eat the beef and vegetables that Luc makes for her and meets a jagged-toothed shadow self (maybe an incarnation of the soucouyant), I could hear the house spitting “As for beef, as for his Frenchie beef and fucking potatoes ha ha.” It’s like the generations of pica-suffering Silver women and the house get all Legion-voiced, and maybe Miri’s voice is in there or maybe not. It’s hard to tell, but chilling. When the house talks about Ore, when we discover Eliot’s true nature; there are so many scenes in the book that not only disturbed me, but also had intense staying power. (My initial answer to this question was, “Uhhh… can I just write 70% of the book?”)

Allison: Yeah, when I try to narrow it down to one or two things I’m left wanting to wave the book around and scream, “ALLLLLLLL OF IT.”

Annie: One other thing that stayed with me is how Oyeyemi can take sentences that are almost sparse–three to five monosyllabic words–and make them richly, deeply terrifying.

Allison: Yes, that’s stuck with me for a long time.

Do you have any lingering questions about parts of the narrative that were unresolved?

Maria: Okay, so who was stabbing the Kosovans? Was it Emma, Eliot’s ex-girlfriend who smokes the red-tipped cigarettes? Or are we really supposed to believe it’s some version of Miranda?

Allison: I don’t know! I wondered the same thing.

Annie: I wondered that too, but not for long as I chalked it all up to the anti-immigrant violence that we see haunting the text. It could have been Emma or a Miri doppelganger, I suppose. More than that I wondered what we are to do with Luc, especially since he seems to figure quite a lot out by the end.

Allison: Let’s be honest, there’s several things that are at loose ends. I’m wondering about a lot of things still.

What are your overall takeaways? Why would you recommend this book to others?6277227

Allison: So y’all know The Night Circus is the book I recommend the most, and that’s largely because it’s so accessible. It’s dark, but not scary. This is the second book I recommend most, but only to folks who really like dark narratives and can handle the potentially disturbing nature of the book.

I love the way Oyeyemi plays with language. Maria mentioned the “stunning” nature of Oyeyemi’s prose and I completely agree. On this merit alone, I recommend this book to people who love gorgeous writing. Lots of Oyeyemi’s work plays with fairy tales and this one is no different. It’s a book I find myself thinking about on quiet afternoons and it’s been almost a year since I read it for the first time.

So basically, I’d recommend this book to people who don’t mind being scared and who appreciate narrative elements we’ve discussed like Oyeyemi’s gorgeous prose and the way she plays with time. I think you have to be a patient reader to really go for this text. As a side note, because of this discussion and the way it’s stuck with me for so long, I’m assigning it in the summer writing course I’m teaching on issues of race, gender and class. I think it will work perfectly.

Maria: I would recommend this book to others, but very selectively. It’s a challenging read, and not everyone has the patience to work out all the puzzles in the narrative. However, the fact that the book is so short makes it easier to re-read a few times.

I can think of some friends who would absolutely love this book because it’s so strange and complex. It also makes for fantastic discussions- there’s so much going on, so much to piece together. I could talk about it for days. It would make wonderful reading material for a literature class, but I think it could be fun to do with a book club as well. On a related note, I’m going to make time to read We Have Always Lived in the Castle now, so thank you Allison!

Annie: My colleagues have said most of what needs to be said here. This is one of the best works of fiction I have read in years. Grown-up political me, spooky subculture kid me, horror fan me, and doctoral student me all came to the table and agreed on this book. As Allison mentioned, she sent the book to me in a care package and also because we were compelled to be able to talk about it together. I would recommend it to anyone who appreciates a challenging book that refuses to comfort its readers and avoids the gratuitous. I would also recommend it to writers as a way to say, “Hey, look what powerful things words can be and do.”

Thanks so much for joining us and let us know in the comments, on twitter, Facebook or tumblr, what you thought of the book.