Author: Lena Coakley
Length: 400 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ¾
In the Witchlands, Ryder is trying to keep his family from falling apart. After his father’s death, his mother has become increasingly dependent on a dangerous, addictive plant called maiden’s woe and her behavior has become more and more erratic. Though neither of them believe in their Goddess, his mother—who was raised among witches—claims she sees visions of war and destruction. On the other side of the border in the Bitterlands, a young Baen man called Falpian is mourning his twin brother and his own inability to work magic. He’s led to believe that his father has also given him an important mission while he completes his mourning period. But when Ryder and Falpian’s paths cross, their lives and beliefs are shaken to the core.
Witchlanders is “high” fantasy in the truest sense. It’s decidedly Young Adult, yes—almost juvenile, even—but unlike in, say, A Song of Ice and Fire, there is no hint of the real world. You cannot superimpose a map of England, or any other country, over one of the Bitterlands and the Witchlands. The races—Baens and Witchlanders—are also distinct, if rather sketchy.
Lena Coakley had a good, original idea here. I respect her for that. Ideas this seemingly original are hard to come by and harder to develop. It’s much easier to rehash things that have come before.
I say “seemingly” for a few reasons that I’ll get into a bit later. For now, the good and the could-have-been-good: Coakley did, in places, create a rich visual universe for her readers. She isn’t a poor writer. She has at least some talent. She’s no Tolkien (though I understand that he isn’t to everyone’s tastes, I still consider him the quintessential example of high fantasy), but she’s also no Stephenie Meyer.
However, the book is definitely geared towards younger audiences. It reads a bit like a fairy tale, and though there are some lovely, poetic passages, there is also a good deal of telling rather than showing. Coakley would have driven some of my past English teachers up a wall with her overuse of “to be” verbs—instead of “this happened” or “a character felt [x],” she wrote “this was happening” and “this character was [x].” It lent the novel a rather simplistic tone.
There were a few scattered cheers from the crowd, and most of the villagers stopped what they were doing to listen, holding up torches and lamps. Skyla and Kef were watching Ryder from the base of the platform, but they didn’t try to stop him. [emphasis mine]
Speaking of simplistic, the divide between the Witchlanders and their sworn enemies, the Baens, was also that. No particular explanation was given as to why the races went to war, why they rarely intermarried (seldom the case in the real world between even the bitterest foes), or why they held two rigidly separate and apparently mutually exclusive belief systems. Why did most, if not all, Witchlanders hate Baens and want to drive them away—kill them, even? Why was “witch” knowledge preserved in the Bitterlands, but all things Baen were destroyed across the border? Why? It’s never explained.
As a result, the moral—obvious from the beginning—is simple, too. If you’ve read the Dr. Seuss story “The Sneeches” or seen The Lion King 2, you already know the message Coakley’s sending here. (I’d cite Romeo and Juliet, too, but this isn’t a [romantic] love story.)
For all that, this book doesn’t appear to be part of a series, at least not that I can see. The lack of a sequel makes the ending a little frustrating and infuriatingly open-ended.
Maybe I’m just overthinking this. Maybe I’m too old for this book’s stark divide—one which feels entirely too easy, too convenient. But it’s a failure of world-building to create such an artificial divide between two people and to never provide adequate clues as to why there were hard feelings or jealousy. In short, Witchlanders is a high fantasy version of the Israel-Palestine or India-Pakistan feuds if all the historical and geopolitical contexts necessary to understand those were boiled away.
Don’t get me wrong—this book was good. It was a fast, enjoyable read. I could picture the scenes in my mind. I particularly liked that the main characters were both male—though whether I actually liked those protagonists is another matter. Between this and Harry Potter I must ask: are all teenage boys either bitter and angry or angsty and self-loathing, or do female authors just imagine them to be so? YA is saturated with teenage heroines who are all beginning to sound the same at this point. I also appreciated that Coakley avoided shoehorning a romance into her novel where none was needed. And the mythology of the Coakley’s world was certainly very interesting, probably the strongest part of the novel. The story of the Witchlands prophets, Aata and Aayse, and the two peoples’ differing beliefs—a Goddess [for the Witchlanders] and a God [for the Baens]—were both very interesting. There’s a very touching scene towards the end involving both Goddess and God that I really enjoyed. Alas, if only the characters had all been as strong.
Now, to finish up with the “seeming originality” I mentioned earlier—yes, despite its almost fairy tale simplicity and the lack of through world-building, Witchlanders is a fairly original novel. That said, a few elements may have been…inspired by other authors.
The characters’ names almost laughably bad. I’m not saying she actually lifted any of them from other works, but she certainly followed in the footsteps of Suzanne Collins’ strange Hunger Games names, slapping nonsensical ones on her fantasy cast.
The main characters, Ryder and Falpian, are bad enough—but Ryder’s mother’s name is Mabis, his sisters are Skyla and Pima, his childhood friend’s name is Kef, and there’s a (female) witch named Visser. Every time a new character was introduced, I struggled a little to take them seriously because of their ridiculous names. And I grew up reading Tolkien.
The other thing, and I didn’t pick up on this right away, was he concept of the talat-sa, or twins-in-spirit. Though the mental bond between these “twins” is two-way, presumably from birth, it reminded me a great deal of the “spirit bound” idea in the Vampire Academy series. Coakley’s novel was published in 2011, Mead’s in 2007, so it’s possible the former took inspiration from the latter. If not, she’s certainly read her Plato.
I’ve waxed too long already, so to sum up, Witchlanders has the seeds of brilliance. Coakley has made an engaging story of a pretty good set of ideas. It’s her execution of those ideas that’s a bit clumsy—for the older YA reader, anyway. Nevertheless, it’s a welcome relief from many tired YA tropes, and for that alone it would get 3+ stars from me.