My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Length: 464 pages
Release date: 22 May 2018
It has been seventy-five years since the dragons’ rule of fire and arcane magic over Vinkerveld was ended, and the Empire was born. Since, the tyrannical Synod has worked hard to banish all manifestations of the arcane across the lands.
However, children are still born bearing the taint of the arcane, known to all as witchsign. So each year the Emperor sends out his Vigilants across the continent to detect the arcane in these children. Those found tainted are taken, and never seen again. Steiner has always suspected his sister Kjellrunn of bearing witchsign. But when their father’s attempt to protect her from the Invigilation backfires, it is Steiner who is mistakenly taken. However it is not death which awaits Steiner, but an Academy where the children with witchsign learn to master their powers – some at the cost of their lives. Steiner is determined to escape the Academy and protect his sister from this fate.
But powerful enemies await him at every turn, and Steiner finds himself taken on a journey straight into the heart of the Empire’s deepest secrets, which will force him to reconsider everything he has known about witchsign.
Sick of every fantasy protagonist being the Chosen One? Witchsign is the book for you. Den Patrick’s Steiner Vartiainen is a scrappy blacksmith’s son looked down on for his illiteracy. The best part of it is that after I feared that the other shoe would drop the whole novel, he never receives the magical destined legacy that eventually relieved everyone from Luke Skywalker to Jon Snow of their humble origins. No, Steiner is a nobody (at least for now), and that doesn’t make him any less of a hero.
Lack of Chosen One syndrome aside, Patrick’s Witchsign is a fascinating, gritty high fantasy that doesn’t pull its punches. It’s refreshingly different from the majority of fantasies marketed as Young Adult these days; this book has more in common with standard adult fantasy than YA. Essentially, the focus is more heavily based on plot and world-building as opposed to character dynamics and personal growth.
The tradeoff pays off. Witchsign is absolutely fantastic on the plot end. Packed with twisty revelations, the story is wholly unpredictable. Plot points that seem all but fated to happen are merely smokescreens for actual, bigger twists. Characters’ actions make sense in light of their motivations. And although Steiner is protected by Kevlar-grade plot armour, you could almost forget it from the way Patrick packs his scenes with suspense.
Along with having nearly no romance, one of its more notable departures from well-worn YA tropes is that Witchsign is a complete story in and of itself. There are no cliffhangers, and the next book could well focus on a different set of protagonists and remain narratively sound. In fact, considering that that’s what Den Patrick did with his Erebus Sequence, I wouldn’t be surprised if Book Two of the Ashen Torment trilogy features entirely fresh faces.
Plot goes hand in hand with world building, and Patrick’s Scandinavia-inspired continent of Vinkterveld (in which the Solmindre Empire, aka Russia, are the baddies) is as imaginative as his story arcs. As the first book in a trilogy, Witchsign holds back a lot of details, but throws in intriguing allusion to future revelations so it feels like the author has it all planned out for the sequels.
Patrick’s writing again differs from many YA novels in its unpretentiousness. The style of speech he has chosen for his setting strikes an accessible compromise between Vinkterveld’s medieval-lite setting and casual modern language, such that characters can on one page respond with an “aye” and on another refer to themselves as “fans” of something without either word feeling out of place.
Witchsign‘s many admirable qualities said, the hardcover copy contains many typos, namely missing punctuation marks, missing words and subject-verb disagreements, especially in later chapters. There’s also a fair deal of awkward syntax, which like the typos may be tied to a lack of proofreading. Although they don’t detract from the story much, the number of oversights is conspicuous for a traditionally published novel.
Steiner, Kjellrunn, Marek, Felgenhauer and Mistress Kamalov form a compelling core cast of characters. Even though, with the exception of one chapter near the end, Steiner and Kjellrunn are the only POV characters, the other main characters are hiding many secrets of their own that lead to interesting interactions with the siblings. If there’s a character-related aspect that could be expanded on, it’s with the sprawling list of supporting characters, some of which naturally fall by the wayside in favour of focusing on the protagonists. Kristofine is one such character. Her background and motivations lend themselves to much potential, and it’s a shame that lack of screen time results in her exclusion to the periphery of the story.
As a whole, however, Witchsign is an entertaining read with few significant flaws. Those components which fall a little flat can easily be polished in the sequels, which I have no doubt I will pick up to continue this thrilling series.