Monday, May 20, 2013

WITCH


Review of WITCH by MARIE BRENNAN
(second in the DOPPELGANGER duology)

Disclaimer: If you haven't read WARRIOR, don't read this review. Major spoilers about the first book in the duology.

I've actually read both WARRIOR and WITCH before. I usually never re-read books, but I make exceptions for some of my favorite books read pre-blogging days. (It seems a shame for a fantastic book to miss out on a glowing review, because I read it before 2011.) Most of the time when I re-read books for my blog, it reminds me why I don't usually re-read: everything's too predictable (well, I know what happens!) and I rarely feel a book as much the second time around. WITCH turned out to be a delightful exception. I forgot most of the major plot twists and said twists both surprised and affected me like I was reading them for the first time. (Granted, this could just as easily be a negative comment on my memory as a positive comment about the book.)

Here comes the spoiler part. As those of you who read WARRIOR know, the first book in the duology concluded with the revelation that a witch and her doppelganger can be joined into one person, information that challenges much of what witches have believed and, following on the heels of those beliefs, done for decades. WITCH opens on a character both new and old: Mirei, who was once two people - the hunter Mirage and the witch Miryo - before the ritual reunited them into one body. Brennan has set herself quite the writerly task here! How can two people now be one person? Read the book and Brennan will show you! Mirei is masterfully characterized with evident traits and habits stemming from both her Mirage and Miryo halves as well as an underlying, understandable tension when two very different parts of their separate personalities clash in their now combined psyche. (One example: Mirage would never hesitate to kill someone who stands between her and her goal while Miryo values human life even if letting a certain someone live could be her own downfall. What, then, will Mirei do?) Not only is Mirei an interesting character on her own, but her unusual circumstance creates fun, complex dynamics with friends of both Mirage and Miryo, who often notice something off about Mirei before learning exactly what.
As WARRIOR established, when a woman gives birth to a witch she has a doppelganger as well. Usually these doppelgangers are killed at birth so magic will flow into the witch without any confusion. If the doppelganger lives (which happens occasionally, most likely when someone balks at killing an infant and secrets her away), the witch will eventually need to kill the other half herself or else her magic will grow confused between the two bodies and lead to devastating magical damage. All that was before Miryo and Mirage. Though very different young women, they certainly shared at least one common trait: a reluctance to simply accept the norm. Through conviction and determination, they discovered that the doppelganger is not a harmful interloper standing between a witch and her magic. She's part of the witch. Following their instincts, they managed to reunite themselves in one body. Of course, this sends emotional and, by extension, political waves through the witch community. Mirei upturns everything witches have ever believed and, if her interpretations of magic prove correct, that means witches have been making many grave errors for a very, very long time. Some witches want to accept their mistakes, study these new revelations, and embrace the changes that will undoubtedly follow. Others resist, violently. In essence, a civil war breaks out among the witch community, all over Mirei: what she is, what she represents, what she means, what to do with her. 

Brennan doesn't go easy on her characters. She throws not one but many hard choices at every character. That's part of the appeal. When decisions feel too easy, when I know exactly what I would do without a doubt, I struggle to invest in the character: either she makes the obvious decision or she risks seeming stupid. However, when I can't begin to imagine how I would handle the character's troubles - oh, that's the real fun! Though Brennan never overloads her reader with more information than necessary, she does plop us down in a fleshed out world with a realistic mess of tangled politics and no easy solutions.

I also adore that, in this world, magic is innovative, like science. Witches think they know how magic works, until new evidence emerges and proves how little they really know. Innovative magic is a common theme in my own writing and I love seeing it in the books I read. It always seems a little too easy, by my logic, to give humans a rule book about how magic works. We're constantly amending every human rule book in existence: why should magic be a static exception? All these rules books (whether we're talking real or fictional) gradually change over time, but when they change closer to overnight the resulting confusion and disorientation can wreck havoc (again, in both reality and fiction!) I'm glad I read this one again, because I forgot how much I really do love this duology!

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