New YA Fiction: The Black Witch – Laurie Forest

YA fiction often offers an interesting mirror to hot button issues in contemporary culture. Far from being “kids’ stuff,” season after I season I find this genre deals head-on with some of the toughest issues society faces.

That’s in the spirit of saying that though this novel is epic fantasy, you won’t find a much more in-your-face exploration of entitlement, racism and homophobia than this story of privileged girl’s awakening at university to the racist attitudes that inform her family background and heritage.

It’s a compelling book about opening up to other points of view, learning to question received wisdom and coming to think for one’s self.

Reviews have been stellar (three starred). And the book finds a strong advocate in the award-winning fantasy novelist Robin Hobb, who writes:

College or University. A time when almost every student discovers that a) not everyone believes what you believe and b) some of what you know is wrong.

“The Black Witch captures that time in the protagonist’s life as Elloren leaves the shelter of her rustic uncle’s home and goes off to school under the guidance of her politically powerful aunt. Elloren has been ‘wand-tested’ for magic and found lacking, despite the family lineage of powerful mages. She is still a potentially powerful pawn for her aunt’s ambitions, but only if she surrenders her independence and knuckles to her aunt’s threats and bribes . . .

“This is a strong ‘first novel’ YA entry by Laurie Forest. It excels at depicting realistically how we react when we confront prejudices, our own and others. The ‘come to realize’ moment is powerful and graphic. Elloren is a believable protagonist in her sometimes painful growth towards accepting the truth. If you enjoy tales of both magic and coming of age and going off to school, this book will satisfy all three of those flavors.”

Check out other early praise:

“In Elloren’s tale, this briskly paced, tightly plotted novel enacts the transformative power of education, creating engaging characters set in a rich alternative universe with a complicated history that can help us better understand our own. A massive page-turner that leaves readers longing for more.”
Kirkus (starred review)

“Exquisite character work, an elaborate mythology, and a spectacularly rendered universe make this a noteworthy debut, which argues passionately against fascism and xenophobia. Though the worldbuilding is initially dense, the pace and stakes increase exponentially, and the thrilling conclusion will leave readers eager for the next book in this series.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Elloren learns to question authority and Gardnerian history, while developing real empathy for different races and species. Forest uses a richly imagined magical world to offer an uncompromising condemnation of prejudice and injustice, while maintaining comfortably predictable romances in a fast-paced school setting. A novel with strong feminist messages, lively secondary characters, and an especially nasty rival (imagine a female Draco Malfoy)—fans of Harry Potter and Tamora Pierce will gobble down its 600-plus pages and demand the sequel.”
Booklist (starred review)

“Elloren Gardner is the spitting image of her grandmother, the Black Witch who was the hero of Gardneria. But Elloren has no demonstrable power, which makes her both a target for her family’s enemies and a disappointment to those who hope she is the next Black Witch. Training at the university for a non-magical career, for the first time Elloren is surrounded by races other than Gardnerians, races that are despised or at least looked down on by her people. Elloren knows everything about these ‘others’ – until she realizes she doesn’t, and finds a world she never truly understood and an inner strength she never needed before as her family history and her future collide. This book is insatiable, stealing your attention away from all other books and anything else you should be doing. It feels like an avalanche, starting with a few flakes and building until you’re overtaken by the world, the irresistible characters, and a powerful sense of justice. I am borderline despondent that I have to wait so long for the next installment.”
— Kelly Morton, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Cincinnati, OH

The Black Witch (9780373212316) by Laurie Forest. $21.99 hardcover. 5/2/17 on sale.

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