I’ve just finished Laurie Forest’s The Black Witch and I am frustrated. This book should have been a hit. It has the all the goods — high stakes adventure, touching friendships, vivid fantasy, burgeoning romance — and it’s all tied together with a powerful, thematic message. AND it’s set in a boarding school. So what the hell went wrong?
The 'Black Witch Controversy'
What happened to The Black Witch is fairly stunning. A book blogger read the novel, developed a firm opinion, and published a review on her website. Her unflinching criticism tapped into issues that young people feel strongly about — racism, xenophobia, and civil injustice.
Word of the strongly worded review spread like wildfire through social media. Then, hundreds of readers (who hadn’t read the book) gave The Black Witch one star on Goodreads and, furthermore, attacked those who expressed a desire to read the novel to form their own opinions.
But after the dust settled, it became clear that The Black Witch, far from supporting anti-progressive ideas, actually argued passionately against them. The damage had been dealt, however. To this day, The Black Witch is a tainted book. I can’t look at its cover without thinking, that is the book that everyone said was YA Mein Kampf.
Everything about this controversy makes me frustrated for two reasons. One, Laurie Forest doesn’t deserve to be called a racist. She wrote an awesome fantasy novel that is all about fighting our own ingrained, racist beliefs.
Second, the way we argue and discuss controversial matters is broken. We need more civility in our discourse, more thoughtfulness, more evidence, and more open ears. We do need space in our arguments for emotion, but we can’t let it run around unchecked.
For instance, one thing that absolutely has to stop is the vitriolic shutting up of dissenting voices. Look, I get it. When I feel passionate about something, it boils my blood to hear a person argue the opposite. But unless that person is being abusive, don’t send them slap memes. Don’t say “STFU.” Don’t tell them to “stay in their lane.” Don’t belittle them. That is NOT how you change minds.
In the case of the Black Witch Controversy, we have a clear-cut example of how people fighting for good can make stupid mistakes. It’s natural to put on our blinders, make snap judgements, and listen only to the echoes of our own arguments.
But we are people who read books. We can and must do better.
Elloren Starts Out Prejudiced, Becomes Racist, Then Learns Tolerance
At certain times, The Black Witch doesn’t give us the perfect heroine. Elloren, our main character, goes through a big character arc. Raised in a remote area by her protective uncle, Elloren was exposed to prejudicial beliefs, but she never learned hatred.
But, when she arrives at the University, located in a sort of peace-zone called Verpacia, Elloren finally meets people of the ethnicities she’s been taught to think less of, even fear. Since she belongs to a race that A) believes itself to be superior over all other races, and B) tries at every opportunity to subjugate and oppress other races, Elloren is not given a great reception.
Quickly, the hostility and aggression dished out by those of subjugated races turns Elloren’s heart. She becomes afraid, angry, and hateful towards races other than her own. She lashes out, and does very unlikable things.
However, in living side by side with the people she hates, she gradually gets to know them. And with exposure, her fear leaves her. Eventually, she comes to love people she once called enemies for who they are as individuals, and appreciates them, too, as members of their own cultures.
While Elloren isn’t the perfect role model by far, she is a highly relatable figure. And I grew to admire her.
An Ensemble Cast Reminiscent of Harry Potter
The Black Witch is similar to Harry Potter in two chief ways. One — magical boarding school. Two — an awesome ensemble cast.
I absolutely fell in love with the peripheral characters in this book. Sure, some barely make an appearance, but they left the impression that they could lead their own spin-off books. Others appear more often as part of Elloren’s oddball collection of friends and allies.
The standout of these characters, hands down, is Diana, the daughter of a werewolf chief. A scene-stealer, her chief characteristic is ‘confidence.’ I mean, imagine a teenage girl with maxed out confidence levels and you’ll get Diana. She provided constant spit-takes.
"Is This a Kissing Book?"
Elloren has two love interests — the powerful military graduate, Lukas Grey, who is of Elloren’s own race, and the mysterious, surly Yvan Guriel, who decidedly is not. It’s not a traditional love triangle, though, and by ‘traditional’ I mean ‘trope-y.’ Neither guy is slavishly devoted to Elloren, and she isn’t tasked with the offensive chore of choosing one of them. Instead, each guy represents an opposing force that is pulling for Elloren’s sympathy and allegiance.
Elloren’s own romance takes a bit of a backseat compared to the peripheral love stories, though. Diana has a love-arc, as does her brother, Jarod. Several other romances are set up for book two, as well. Love was in the air. I liked it!
If You Enjoy YA Fantasy, You Should Read The Black Witch
The Black Witch was solid YA fantasy, and I loved reading it. I give it five stars. It accomplished exactly what I want out of a book — it gave me adventure, human drama, and a strong message. I do not hesitate to recommend this book.