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This Witch Lacks Magic

The promising plot of Laurie Forest’s The Black Witch is overwhelmed by the book’s problematic themes.

This Witch Lacks Magic

BOOK REPORT for The Black Witch (The Black Witch Chronicles #1) by Whitney Taylor

Cover Story: Is This a Magic Book?
BFF Charm: Caution!
Swoonworthy Scale: 5
Talky Talk: Promising, but Problematic
Bonus Factor: Brothers
Factor: Series Starter
Anti-Bonus Factors: Draco Malfoy, Awful Aunt
Relationship Status: Good On Paper

Trigger Warning: The Black Witch features a lot of problematic themes, from xenophobia, racism, homophobia and religious fanaticism to sexism, bullying, and physical and mental abuse. Some scenes might be triggering for some readers. Others might just get super frustrated.

Cover Story: Is This a Magic Book?

It’s pretty clear that this book is a fantasy, from the strange feather sprouting trees (and, obvs, the title), but there’s little about this cover that actually tells you anything about the story within. (After you read the story, the image makes more sense, but even then it’s a bit of a reach.)

The Deal:

Elloren Gardner has led a sheltered life. Her people, the Gardnerians, are startlingly racist and  xenophobic, having long bought into the doctrines of their religion that tell them that they are the Promised Race, that they—with their dark hair and pale skin—are pure; everyone else is something less, or even actually Evil Ones. The Gardnerians have a long history of antagonism with neighboring countries and the other races that live in their world; the balance of power has shifted frequently between the various races due to wars, etc., but Elloren’s grandmother, the Black Witch, was instrumental in uplifting the Gardnerians to their current position at the top of the hierarchy. Elloren doesn’t have her grandmother’s magic, but she’s the spitting image of her, which can make life difficult.

When Elloren heads to Verpax University, she’s shocked to find that she will attend classes with members of other races and species. However, she’s even more shocked when she realizes that most of what she was taught in Gardnerian society is completely and utterly wrong.

BFF Charm: Caution!

I’m a person who tries to give people the benefit of the doubt. I try not to judge anyone on their outward appearance, place of origin, or religious or political beliefs. I’m not perfect, but I really, really try. Elloren … does not. (At least for the first 2/3 or so of The Black Witch.) She’s super quick to judge or write off people/creatures she comes into contact with, and is completely indoctrinated by Gardnerian society. She’s literally repulsed by certain races, and time and time again thinks or talks about how thankful she is to belong to such a Pure race. She’s also contradictory to a fault; at times she’s overcome with her hatred of people not like her, followed closely by times she’s “shocked” by similar behaviors of others.

I do have to give her a bit of leeway, considering that it can be super hard to question the things you’ve been told are truth your entire life and overcome 18 years of brainwashing, particularly when you’re part of a society that doesn’t have a lot of communication or contact with other societies. And she does eventually begin to realize that what she believes might be wrong, actually seeks out knowledge to educate herself to other viewpoints, and ignores others when they tell her not to hang out with non-Gardnerians. It’s just a really long and and frustrating road we have to travel to get there, and we occasionally get hit with a muddy bit of backsliding along the way.

Swoonworthy Scale: 5

Members of Gardnerian society get “wandfasted,” or magically betrothed, at a young age. And if they break their fast for any reason, they’re literally scarred for life. Although she’s almost 18, Elloren has avoided being fasted, but she’s not exactly opposed to the idea. Especially when her Aunt pushes her toward an appealing match.

But being away from home, at a University filled with other options, it’s not surprising that Elloren’s eye begins to wander.

Talky Talk: Promising, but Problematic

The Black Witch is a good news/bad news book. Good news: The book is well-written, from a grammar and mechanics perspective. Laurie Forest’s world-building is fascinating, and her characters are intriguing and compelling. The book seems to be heavily influenced by Harry Potter, or other books of that ilk, and the top-level idea of the plot (girl goes to university, makes friends who are different than her, and figures out who she truly is away from those who’d groom her in their own image) is a fun one.

But then there's the bad news: The book is filled with problematic issues, including racism, xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, religious fanaticism, bullying and abuse, and they’re not really used in a thoughtful manner. The Gardnerian society is puritanical and patriarchal, and life is pretty rough for anyone who’s not a Gardnerian male who has magic. And there are a lot of Gardnerians, but they don’t seem to be the majority; they’re just the people with the power. (Currently.) While I was reading, I marked problematic passages with a page flag.

I used 75 flags before I was even two-thirds of the way through the novel.

So, I can see why there’s been so much backlash about this book in the book community. The problematic elements are repeated and beleaguered, and end up overshadowing the plot. (I literally said, “oh, come on” out loud more than once while reading.) However, I can also see that Forest was trying to tell a story of growing out of one’s upbringing, learning to make your own decisions and find your own beliefs, and not judging people by their “covers.” Sadly, it’s a slog to get to the turning point. Forest could have certainly gotten to the moral of the story without beating us over the head with the multitude of issues that Elloren had to overcome.

Bonus Factor: Brothers

Elloren’s brothers are delightful. They not only take care of Elloren in a physical sense, but also they try to help her prevail over her small-town, sheltered upbringing (and the general Gardnerian beliefs). One nitpick: They’re so much more open-minded than Elloren, which is frustrating. Sure, they went to University before her, and were therefore introduced to new ideas and new people far sooner than she, but why didn’t they try to teach her when they went home between terms?

Factor: Series Starter

I’m sure a lot of people who read the first book have written this series off completely, but I’m curious to see if Forest can learn from her mistakes—or the feedback of her readers—and bring a better balance to subsequent novels.

Anti-Bonus Factor: Draco Malfoy

When she gets to University, Elloren has continual run-ins with Fallon Bane, a seriously powerful mage—and a horrible excuse for a person. She’s actually so much worse than Draco ever was, but reminded me of him in a lot of ways.

Anti-Bonus Factor: Awful Aunt

Elloren’s aunt, a powerful mage who’s on the Gardnerian ruling council, seems nice enough at first, if not a little obsessed with how society perceives her family. But when Elloren tells her that she wants to wait until after she finishes her schooling to get wandfasted, Aunt Vyvian becomes a nightmare, making Elloren’s life miserable as often and as horribly as she can.

Casting Call:

A slightly younger Rooney Mara as Elloren

Relationship Status: Good On Paper

I really wanted to like you, Book. Before we met, I also wanted to give you the benefit of the doubt. But you left a lot to be desired. We could have been great, you and I, but you held onto your distressing beliefs far too long for us to make a truly meaningful connection.

FTC Full Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Harlequin Teen, but got neither a private dance party with Tom Hiddleston nor money in exchange for this review. The Black Witch is available now.

Mandy Curtis's photo About the Author: Mandy is a small town girl living in a nerdy world, or—if you want to get literal—an editor/writer living in Austin, TX. In addition to yearning for YA books—the more dystopian or fantastical, the better—she can also be found swooning over superheroes, dreaming of The Doctor and grinning at GIFs.
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