Like a lot of people, I bet, I was first alerted to the existence of Laurie Forest’s debut novel The Black Witch by an article in Vulture entitled “The Toxic Drama on YA Twitter.” The article told the story of how this novel had faced a massive backlash even before its publication, all resulting from an early review accusing the book of being “the most dangerous, offensive book I have ever read.” The reviewer spent almost 10,000 words excoriating the book for its bigotry and racial views, singling out passage after passage of hateful speech and racially loaded language. From there, the backlash doubled down, resulting in no small amount of trouble for this book, but largely one that was echoed by people going off of this review without reading the book – which, of course, led to a backlash to that backlash, with people rising to defend the book. And so, naturally, I decided that I wanted to read the book for myself, to see where it fell. The answer, unsurprisingly, is somewhere in the middle; this is a book with noble intention, some compelling themes, and an uplifting goal, but an execution that leaves a lot to be desired.
The problem, of course, is that the debate around The Black Witch is mainly about whether or not the book is racist. Every single one of the quotes and excerpts presented by that angry reviewer are correct; there’s no misquoting, no made up material. What’s left out is context, and that matters a great deal – that every one of the characters that says these horrible comments are largely intended to be the villains of the novel, and even when our heroine says these same comments, it is because she knows no better. At its core, The Black Witch is about Elloren Gardner, a young woman who has been raised in a society that sees itself as the superior race in the society – one that talks down to all others, sees other cultures as subservient to them, demands racial purity, and expects the other countries and races to fall into line behind them. But once she goes to college and begins to meet people outside of her small, insular people, she realizes that she’s been lied to – that the things she has assumed all of her life, the things she has believed, are far from true.
What results, then – and this is, in no small way, the best aspect of The Black Witch – is the story of a young woman learning the error of her ways and coming to terms with her own flawed assumptions and beliefs. The Black Witch uses hateful language and loaded terms, no doubt, but it does so in service of a larger goal – to show that hateful beliefs and racial hatred can be unlearned, but only through difficulty. That’s not an unnoble goal, by any means, and I like that the book doesn’t make it an easy shift – it’s a gradual process, one that comes and goes, and doesn’t happen all at once. Even more to the point, I like the fact that the book makes no secret of the hatred she receives from other races, nor makes her more sympathetic unnecessarily; our heroine is a deeply person, but by setting her discrimination in a fantasy world, we’re left wondering if the disgusting rhetoric out of her mouth is factual or simply twisted beliefs.
That’s to the book’s credit, I believe, as is the point that it doesn’t shy away from troubling language in Elloren’s matriarch or some of the other characters. Yes, the book is giving us this language, these beliefs – but we’re not supposed to agree with them. To feel that way would be akin to feeling like we were supposed to side with the Ewells in To Kill a Mockingbird, or hearing Nazi propaganda in World War II novels and feeling that it was factual. And yet, I can’t entirely fault the original reviewer’s reaction – there’s little denying that I went into this book aware that it was intended as a “learning/redemption” story, and that if I didn’t know that was coming, I, too, might turn on the book quickly. It’s a case where you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t; if the book doesn’t make Elloren and her family hateful, it’s not honest to the issue, but by not tipping its hand before we realize the fallacies the book is unraveling, it runs the risk of seeming worse than it is.
But here’s the thing: all of that is well and good, but the bigger issue is, The Black Witch is only okay, themes and all. To call the plotting “loose” would be generous; the book barely hangs together as a story, just sort of drifting through its scenario and hoping that the character development is enough to anchor our interest. And it might be, if every character weren’t so annoyingly one note, from the popular girl at school to the “evil” roommate (who of course turns out to be misunderstood). Author Laurie Forest is going for something admirable, but none of the characters really comes to life beyond a single personality trait, and the way they’re all gradually paired off into romantic couplings is less engaging and more eye-rolling. That, however, is better than Forest’s habit in the back half of the book of random flashbacks to major events in an effort to make the story feel more remembered and told. It’s a strange pacing choice that never pays off, and doesn’t help with the already shaggy, loose nature of the book. And, of course, this has to the first book in a series, and so we are barely beginning to get into the story when the book ends on a deeply unsatisfying conclusion, one that’s less a cliff-hanger and more of a “I’ve hit my page count”.
And yet, I really like the theme of The Black Witch, and admire what it’s going for – there’s something compelling about unflinchingly looking at how hard it can be to question what you’ve been taught, and the importance of trusting your own experience, and the voices of others, rather than what you are told by “authority”. (My favorite aspect of this comes as Elloren learns that the best way to truly learn history is to read accounts from every group involved, and embrace the complexities that arise when they conclude.) No, the book itself isn’t that great, but there’s a rich idea there, and a goal that I enjoyed – and something that’s worth reading it on its own terms, to understand that what it’s depicting is the very thing it’s condemning.