Book: Witchshadow (Witchlands #4)
Author: Susan Dennard
Narrator: Cassandra Campbell
BECHDEL TEST: Uncertain, didn’t keep track!
Content Warnings: Animal death, body horror, death, gore, violence, blood, murder, mind and body control, infidelity, imprisonment
After a slight dip in the series for me with Windwitch, Bloodwitch brought the series back up to what I’d initially enjoyed in Truthwitch, and thankfully as I discovered the Witchlands series in 2020, I only had a year wait between reading Bloodwitch and Witchshadow. Unfortunately, Witchshadow wasn’t as good for me, the way the book was structured really let it down and four books into the series, I’m still massively confused by certain parts of it! Here is a short synopsis of the book:
War has come to the Witchlands . . . and nothing will be the same again.
Iseult has found her heartsister Safi at last, but their reunion is brief. For Iseult to stay alive, she must flee Cartorra while Safi remains. And though Iseult has plans to save her friend, they will require her to summon magic more dangerous than anything she has ever faced before.
Meanwhile, the Bloodwitch Aeduan is beset by forces he cannot understand. And Vivia—rightful queen of Nubrevna—finds herself without a crown or home.
As villains from legend reawaken across the Witchlands, only the mythical Cahr Awen can stop the gathering war. Iseult could embrace this power and heal the land, but first she must choose on which side of the shadows her destiny will lie.
My biggest issue with this book is an unusual one for me, it was the structure of the book, but then this book does have a rather unusual structure. At first I thought I’d forgotten a lot from Bloodwitch because I didn’t recognise where we were when the book started (which to be fair, I had forgotten quite a bit!), but that wasn’t actually the issue, the book had flashed forward in time and starts in the middle of the story, then flashes back through the book back to where we were when Bloodwitch left off. Not only was this super disorienting as a reader to be thrown into an unfamiliar point in the story, it also didn’t work massively well for me, because the flashbacks just felt like an enormous info-dump to fill in the gaps in the present timeline. I don’t really see why Safi and Iseult’s story couldn’t have been told chronologically, the book didn’t gain anything from the non-linear way their part of the story was told, it struggled to keep the two timelines consistent for a start and the more exciting events actually happened in the flashbacks, so it would have been better for everyone if Dennard had just told those events chronologically. I do usually like a non-linear timeline, when it’s done well, but the flashbacks here didn’t seem to fit naturally where they were.
As with all of the other Witchlands books, we’re following a lot of different characters and once again I felt like there were too many points of view, this time we had Safi, Iseult, Vivia, Stix & Aeduan, and we’re across several different parts of the world and the characters are all doing different things, it was very difficult to keep track of where they all were at any given point. I really think this series could use a few less POV characters, because not every character really seems to add to the plot of the story. For me, in this book, Stix’s parts especially felt kind of redundant, I didn’t see what they added to the story so I would have been happy to lose them. Really, I think this book would have been fine with three different points of view, Safi, Iseult and Vivia were really driving the story, so that would have been more than enough.
The plots also all felt very disparate, aside from Iseult’s and Safi’s in the past, each character is on their own journey and it all felt very separate from each other, so the narrative didn’t feel particularly cohesive, it was more like you were reading several different stories in one rather than one book. According to the author, this was originally meant to be two books and her publisher asked her to condense it into one, and you can definitely tell, it does feel like plots that weren’t originally meant to be combined have been jammed together.
It wouldn’t be a review from me if I didn’t mention my old nemesis, PACING, and oh boy did this book have pacing issues. Right from the start, the pacing is incredibly uneven, the majority of the first half of the book is incredibly slow and then when we get to the second half, so many of the events felt rushed through. I think this again comes down to trying to fit the content of two books into one. This isn’t to say that combining two books into one never works, I have read books by authors who have done this before, but I think the Witchlands is so complicated as it is, that combining two separate books just didn’t work very well for this particular series. Some of the chapters were also overly long so that didn’t do anything to help with the pacing.
I also still don’t really understand all the Paladin stuff, even four books in. I don’t get the difference between the Paladins and the Exalted Ones, I don’t really understand who the Six are. Basically the world building feels like there are a load of words being thrown around, but I never feel like anything is really explained properly. Maybe I should have paid more attention to Sightwitch and then I would have understood more of what was going on with all of that, but I found Sightwitch super confusing too!
On the more positive side, I really did enjoy Iseult’s character development in this book. She’s never been my favourite character in this series, I’ve always liked Safi much more, and found Iseult a little cold and aloof (which to be fair, she is meant to be) but I found myself warming to her much more as we spent more time with her in this book. I liked seeing her come into herself and her powers more in this book, and especially seeing her start to deal with her feelings more and not constantly attempt to push them down. I also really loved seeing her start to heal her relationship with her mother as that’s been such a big part of her character arc throughout the series. Seeing her growing to care for Owl was really lovely as well, it felt like that was also a big part in her coming to terms with her relationship with her mother.
I still don’t really get what the endgame of this series is meant to be and we’re one book from the end. Is it reuniting the Paladins? Saving the Origin Wells? Stopping the war between the kingdoms? Something to do with Iseult and Safi being the Cahr Awen? I feel like there are so many ideas in this series that’s difficult to keep track and actually know what the stakes for the characters are, and without knowing the stakes, it’s super hard to feel invested.
I was disappointed that Safi and Iseult were apart again for most of this book, their friendship is meant to be the centre of the story and they’re so great when they’re together, I feel like they’re both at their best, so it’s a shame their interactions are still fairly limited in this book, I would have liked to have seen them together more. I hope in the final book they will be!
I was super confused by Aeduan and Evrane’s part in this book because at some point between Bloodwitch and Witchshadow, they’ve been possessed by Exalted Ones (I think? Like I said, I’m not so up on the differences between Exalted Ones and Paladins) but we never get to see what happened, so we’re just meant to accept that this possession happened off page and have no idea how Aeduan and Evrane got to where they were when we first see them in Witchshadow? It felt like a super large gap missing from the book, and another problem with starting in the middle of the story in this book.
I was quite surprised by the direction taken with Vivia and Vaness in this book, as I didn’t think it was heading towards a romantic relationship in the last book, more a rivalry turned begrudging respect and potentially eventual friendship, but it definitely went down more the romantic route in this book and I actually didn’t hate it, I felt like they had a strong connection and good chemistry, so I’m intrigued to see how this develops in the final book of the series. I don’t know how this is going to work out with the whole Stix/Vivia thing up in the air, because there’s definitely some unresolved business there and I think when the three of them come face to face in the final book (because surely it has to happen!), things will get very interesting.
I’m kind of annoyed that everyone in this series has to be some special type of witch, or resurrected being or royalty, I mean Safi’s the only Truthwitch, Iseult’s the only Weaverwitch, Aeduan’s the only Bloodwitch, Stix is a Paladin, Vivia’s a Queen, Merik’s a Crown Prince, Vaness is an Empress, the list goes on and on. It would be nice if just one of them was a bog standard, run of the mill witch and didn’t have to be super powerful, or special in any way!
There’s a LOT of mind/body control in this book which I didn’t love, because it brings up a whole load of consent issues that make me quite uncomfortable and I didn’t think the book necessarily really dealt with all of that.
Merik was also barely in this? I didn’t massively mind, because I don’t like him much, but it still felt odd that he wasn’t there as he’s been a main POV character from the beginning. I accept that he naturally probably didn’t have as much to do in the narrative of this book, but I’d rather have seen what Merik was doing that been with Stix and Ryber on their pointless adventure in Saldonica.
The writing in this was fine, though it did have a tendency to be very repetitive. I can never quite decide how I feel about Susan Dennard’s writing, sometimes I really enjoy it, and other times I find it kind of cringey and repetitive. I do wonder how much of this is the narrator for the audiobooks though, as Cassandra Campbell is not my favourite narrator ever.
There was one particular scene in this book that really grossed me out. Now don’t get me wrong, Emperor Heinrich is THE WORST, but there’s part of the book where Safi sneaks around to find her and Iseult’s threadstones, and the Hell Bard necklace, and she deliberately walks in on Heinrich and his mistress having sex in order to get what she needs. Now I do understand that Heinrich kept what she needed in his pockets, so she needed his clothes to be off, but she could have done it whilst he was asleep, and saved us all that incredibly awkward and cringeworthy scene!
In the end, this book didn’t really live up to my expectations, I was hoping for a jam packed, exciting sequel, ramping up the action before the big finale. Instead, I found a confusing, messily structured & unevenly paced book, that didn’t really build my excitement for the fifth book. The decision to merge what was meant to be two books into one didn’t do the book any favours and ultimately for me, hampered my reading experience.
My Rating: 3/5 (mostly for Iseult’s story).
My next review will be of my other September audiobook, Little Fires Everywhere. I’ve not really stemmed my review backlog any, as I just finished another audiobook, so I’m still at four reviews left to do after this one!