The Good: Fantastic concepts, especially in terms of world building and history. Strong themes from start to finish, with shock reveals along the way.
The Bad: While Witchsign got off to a cracking start, I felt that the pace slowed in the middle, though it quickened to breakneck speed in the last 10%. Additionally, I felt some of the one-liners were unneeded, but I won’t hold that against the story, which I really enjoyed.
The Ugly Truth: Witchsign is not your typical ‘chosen one’ tale. And that’s a good thing. It’s a story of oppression, survival, and the ability of individuals to adapt and overcome whatever the odds. Think ‘wrong person, right place, right time’. With this in mind, it’s little surprise that it has all the hallmarks of grimdark greatness, albeit with shades of YA storytelling and epic fantasy elements. Whilst I found there was a lot to love about this book, for me it let itself down toward the middle. Overall, with the plot and its developments, it had me hooked; and I for one am looking forward to where Den Patrick takes the story next.
Witchsign is the first book in the Ashen Torment, the second series from author Den Patrick.
The story is told from the perspectives of siblings Steiner and Kjellrun, who live with their father in Cinderfell, a village on the north-west reach of the Solmindre Empire, but not so far as to be free of its oppressing grip. Vigilants of the Empire – inquisitor-like agents – visit villages just like Cinderfell, testing the young for Witchsign: a taint of sorcery, all that remains of the dragons now driven to extinction by the Empire. Anyone found to have Witchsign is taken to the island of Vladibodgan for cleansing by the Vigilants, and although no-one in Cinderfell has been found to have Witchsign for decades, Steiner fears that Kjell’s fey demeanour and rebellious streak is a sign of things to come…
With all that in mind, this book is NOT what I expected. Which is a good thing!
The plot is relatively straightforward – despite what I just said about the book not being what I expected (more on that in a minute). Whilst I had a general gut feeling of where I thought it was going to end up (and the story has a breadcrumb trail of clues that helped this) there were plenty of small surprises along the way, with more kept back for later in the series. I would say that it read a little bit formulaic at times, and some characters seemed to be present as checklist entities in a fantasy story without really spreading their wings (Kristofine, Maxim, Aurelian stood out as examples of this for me).
On the note about ‘later in the series’, while Witchsign is only book one, the ending ties enough of the main threads together that it could be read by itself, and in a way treated as a standalone. This should appeal to those readers who want their stories in ‘one go’ (and not have to wait years for them to be completed), but also to those who want epic arcs spanning multiple volumes, featuring their favourite characters.
And it’s on the note of characters that Witchsign proved to be not what I expected. There are more blacksmith characters in fantasy than you can shake a stick at, but Steiner isn’t your usual black and white brutish blacksmith, nor is he a prophesied ‘chosen one’ beneath all the soot and ash. In essence, Steiner’s story is that of a ‘not chosen one’ thrown into a tale normally associated with, you guessed it, ‘the chosen one’. Through the support of those around him, and a few choice gifts, Steiner is able to overcome the odds, save the day, but still have room to grow and go.
However, in part because of the focus on Steiner in the book, I wanted more from Kjellrun’s story. Without spoiling things, whilst Steiner is embarking on an ‘adventure’ that constitutes a ‘hero’s journey,’ Kjellrun’s story doesn’t have the same level of struggle or odds, or that big ‘this is her moment’ scene. This is partly because her own ‘adventure’ is an inward one, in addition to discovering things about her family’s past, but I felt that with the wealth of original worldbuilding she deserved to have more ‘magic’ in her story (which is rather ironic, seeing as she’s the one at the start who has all the mentions about Witchsign). What I am trying to say is that I wanted more not from Kjell (who is a fantastic character) but for her. Whilst this is predominantly Steiner’s story (or at least it comes off that way), I wanted to know more about Kjell and her ‘hero’s journey’ as she discovers her power, and the price it will cost her. There are multiple occasions throughout the story in which this ‘cost’ is spoken of, but in Kjell’s development I didn’t feel that it was explored very much.
Between the two main characters, they present a really interesting take on the typical ‘chosen one’ story, and instead Witchsign for me read more like a ‘right place, right time’ of consequences and challenges – or better yet ‘wrong place, wrong time’ but through their own strengths they still set out to right the wrongs of the world.
The worldbuilding, despite having some very clear real-world influences, especially in terms of naming, has something wonderfully special and different about it. To summarise: think Slavic-influenced worldbuilding with hints of a Christian-inspired religious empire versus the pagan old ways of its denizens. I absolutely loved the idea of magic born from the taint of dragons, and the many secrets surrounding it. And although I went into this with the idea of a dark fairytale in my head, Witchsign is more dark folklore with myth and magic brought to life. Instead of typical fairytale creatures Witchsign has spriggani and cinderwraiths, and without spoiling anything, I thought they were a brilliant touch – especially the cinderwraiths, which are wonderfully inventive.
Despite the ‘dark’ tones here and there, I would argue this isn’t grimdark. Nor would I classify it as YA fantasy (which Den Patrick is known for from his Erebus Sequence), though the ingredients are there. For me this does count as straight-up fantasy, without being a generic ‘elves and dwarves and witches and wizards’ fantasy (though there’s nothing wrong with those generics either). There’s something for everyone here, whilst being something different – something special – all at the same time.
I struggled to think of comparisons as I was reading this, because there’s no one thing that stands out as a clear ‘x meets y’, which again, is a good thing (I’m labouring this line, I know, but…that’s because it is a good thing!). Having finished the book, I would say that it is ‘The Witcher’ crossed with John Gwynne’s Faithful and the Fallen and Jen William’s Winnowing Flame series, wrapped up in Grimdark wrapping paper with a YA gift-tag. Like I said, something for everyone, but something different – something special – all at the same time.
I really enjoyed Witchsign, and although it slowed a little in the middle with some clear ‘this is what is going to happen next’ moments, the ending proved that there’re still plenty of miles left in the tank. Add to that Den Patrick can write a satisfactory ending whilst leaving more surprises waiting in the wings, I for one will be staying for the second act that is Stormtide, book two in the Ashen Torment.
Thank you to Den Patrick who provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.