Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Black Witch by Laurie Forest

🌟 I read this for the Yule Bingo Challenge, for the category of Marauders: book w/ a map. For more info on this challenge, click here. 🌟  

I originally had no intention of reading this book. The furor surrounding THE BLACK WITCH was too extra, and I wanted absolutely nothing to do with it. However, I'm a woman with opinions, who doesn't like being told what to think, and when I saw people on both sides actively trying to shut one another down, using their thoughts on the book to leverage their various political platforms ("you're a racist!" "no, you're an SJW!"), I began to wonder what the hell was going on. Then the book dropped to $1.99 on Amazon and I thought, "Screw taking the high road."

First, let me very clear: as a straight, white woman, I fully acknowledge that my familiarity and experience with racism and discrimination are going to be very, very different from others. There are many areas where, to speak frankly, I don't know shit. If reading this book made you feel uncomfortable, then it made you feel uncomfortable, and I am not going to tell you that you are wrong or argue with you about the validity of your experiences felt while reading this book. THE BLACK WITCH is a book whose entire concept revolves around race and discrimination, which is a really painful subject for a lot of people - especially right now, when racial- and ethnic-based discrimination seem to make headlines every day. 

However, even if you set the matters of race and discrimination aside, as they pertain to the book, THE BLACK WITCH is still not a very good book.

Here's what I think the author was trying to do. I think Laurie Forest was trying to do with WWII what ANIMAL FARM did with the Communist Revolution in Russia. The Gardnerians are fascists, and in particular, their rise from a terrible oppression from another race (the Kelts, AKA Europe/UK?) and their scapegoating and mass-genocide of the Fae, not to mention the fact that their leader has them wear white armbands, seem to suggest that this society is supposed to serve as an allegory for the rise of the Nazi party during WWII. I do not think that this book is saying that fascism is a good idea, nor do I think that it is saying that Nazis are a good idea: in fact, I think this book is trying very, very hard to say that the opposite is true. As those who have rated the book positively have said, the main character, Elloren, learns the error of her ways when she is sent to a magical school filled with other races, through dialogues and interactions with people who are different than her. She learns the value of different perspectives, and that history is told through a different lens depending on who's telling it. She learns that her country is the bad guy.

That could have been interesting. The problem is that this book is filled with so many mixed messages that the author's intentions are thoroughly muddled. I suspect it's because the author did not want to write an unlikable main character. It's difficult to market an unlikable main character, particularly in young adult books, because teens generally want characters they identify with and parents buying the books want good role models for their kids. So in order to make Elloren sympathetic, all of the other characters pick on and bully her for being Gardnerian. And Elloren uses their anger to rationalize her racism, and is constantly talking about how "pure" her race is. She seeks out one of her professors to inquire about their perspective on history, but then starts looking for loopholes and whining about how hard it is to balance so many perspectives. All I could think about are those idiots on Twitter, who RT every single mainstream news article they can find about social justice and caption it "FAKE NEWS! FAKE NEWS!" I can definitely see why this made people uncomfortable. It made me uncomfortable. It felt like a cheap way to get some sympathy for a character I had already decided, from the very beginning of the story, that I did not like.

Being uncomfortable while reading a book can sometimes be a good thing. It can mean that you're confronting facts that aren't easy to listen to but that just means that they're even more important. THE HATE U GIVE made me uncomfortable, but I learned a lot from it, too, and it ended up becoming one of my top reads of 2017. I didn't experience that with THE BLACK WITCH

Elloren is easily one of the most selfish, unlikable, ridiculous main characters I have encountered in a while. She's racist, obviously, and it takes forever for her to change her views. She has to cause multiple people a lot of pain before she realizes, "Hey, maybe I'm not the good guy." She uses her crush, Lukas Grey, to bully others and get revenge on her behalf, including killing the pet of her demon roommate and threatening a small child with deportation and slavery. She cries at the drop of a hat, bawling over petty insults that pale in comparison to the hurts she inflicts on others, and she's cowardly, too, choosing to run away or hide behind Lukas rather than fighting her own battles.

She does so much harm.

And then one of her main turning points is watching another character being bullied and then feeling bad about it. Not doing anything about it or speaking out, but just feeling bad about it. Like we're supposed to credit her for that. Sorry, but no. You're not getting that cookie. In the second half of the book, she finally has some character development, but it feels sudden, because it kind of happens all at once - mostly, I think, for the sake of the plot. Every page, Elloren has a new revelation, and it's just kind of like, "Okay, I get it. All of your previous beliefs are wrong now. Go you."

Then there's the fact that the writing in this book simply is not good. The world building is not well thought-out and there's so many names and races and other details just haphazardly thrown in that it felt impossible to try and keep track of it all. The quality of the writing is not good, with multiple adverbs used, sometimes two or three to a sentence, giving the writing a disjointed, clunky feel. The names are silly. All of the characters are two dimensional. Elloren is a Mary Sue of the highest order (the hot dude literally decides he wants her as soon as he lays eyes on her, which of course drives the resident mean girl up the wall and causes all sorts of bullying and girl-on-girl hate/slut-shaming), and all of the villains are cardboard cut-outs. The descriptions of the characters read like someone's fanfiction, with purple-and-black haired characters with piercings who could just as easily double as Hot Topic models in their downtime. I felt like I was reading Quizilla stories in 2004.

I respect the author for trying to tackle such a difficult subject. It's just a damn shame that it went so badly. Sometimes, attempts to start dialogues don't end well - the book, REVEALING EDEN, is solid proof of that. THE BLACK WITCH doesn't seem to be as tone-deaf as REVEALING EDEN came across as, though. It feels like a less successful attempt at what ILLUSION by Paula Volksy so beautifully accomplished. ILLUSION was an allegory for the French Revolution, and the focus was more on class-discrimination rather than race although it dealt with both. It was a good book because it not only had a well developed world and characters whose motives were not only believable but also chillingly familiar and/or relatable, it also did a good job of writing a heroine who was incredibly privileged, selfish, and entitled, who also had a character arc that involved not being a bigot anymore by making her flawed and selfish and human. Unlike Elloren, however, Eliste was resourceful, clever, and interesting. Those were the traits that ultimately triumphed over her less pleasant attributes.

There were some good elements in this book. Diana's character was great, and anything involving or pertaining to dragons always has my vote. I even appreciated the details the author put into the story to make it work as an allegory - allegories of world history as fantasy and science-fiction are kind of my weakness #HistoryNerd. The problem, I think, is how the message of this book was handled and the fact that it hits just a little too close to home with regard to what's happening in the news every day. Maybe this book just came out at the wrong time. Regardless, I can't recommend it.

Hopefully I managed to explain myself without making a proper mess of my opinions. :-)

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

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