Author: Virginia Boecker
Series: The Witch Hunter (#1)
Read: April 10-11th
Publisher: Hachette Children’s
Release Date: June 2nd
Genre: high fantasy
In short: choppy writing, an entirely unremarkable world, an unremarkable plot, a character I couldn’t bring myself to like…I had way too many problems with this book. Prepare for a ginormous review, and I’ll be adding more in the GR version because I can hide spoilers there. Skip to the TL;DR version at the end.
Edit: I put the review up on Goodreads here! I discussed the ending under a spoiler tag.
Goodreads: Sixteen-year-old Elizabeth Grey doesn’t look dangerous. A tiny, blonde, wisp of a girl shouldn’t know how to poison a wizard and make it look like an accident. Or take out ten necromancers with a single sword and a bag of salt. Or kill a man using only her thumb. But things are not always as they appear. Elizabeth is one of the best witch hunters in Anglia and a member of the king’s elite guard, devoted to rooting out witchcraft and bringing those who practice it to justice. And in Anglia, the price of justice is high: death by burning.
When Elizabeth is accused of being a witch herself, she’s arrested and thrown in prison. The king declares her a traitor and her life is all but forfeit. With just hours before she’s to die at the stake, Elizabeth gets a visitor – Nicholas Perevil, the most powerful wizard in Anglia. He offers her a deal: he will free her from prison and save her from execution if she will track down the wizard who laid a deadly curse on him.
As Elizabeth uncovers the horrifying facts about Nicholas’s curse and the unwitting role she played in its creation, she is forced to redefine the differences between right and wrong, friends and enemies, love and hate… and life and death.
Apathy level: master. That’s honestly the best way to describe the way I felt about this book. I’m sorry to say I don’t understand the hype or the gushing reviews, because The Witch Hunter had very little that was remarkable. A Medieval English setting, a world where magic is outlawed and witches/wizards are hunted, a girl firmly against magic until she discovers that ‘magic isn’t inherently good or bad’…All well and good, if not for the fact that it’s been done SO MANY TIMES BEFORE. I kept expecting the author to do something new, to add some twist to it…but nope. And it gets worse.The main character Elizabeth was absolutely impossible to empathise with and I feel like I know nothing about her personality (actually, what personality? There were no signs of it.)
≫ The writing:
It was so much telling, rather than showing, and it was horrifically clunky and choppy. No, seriously, half of the novel consists of painfully short sentences that stop the story from moving along smoothly.
Immediately, I’m transported back to that last day of training as a witch hunter. The day I should have died. But somehow, miraculously, lived.
I stumble over something then. I look down. It’s the knife. The one I stabbed myself in the leg with, the one John flung to the ground.
We warned them to stop, but they didn’t stop. Now here we are, standing in a dirty square under a dirty sky, forcing them to stop.
It’s almost too much to believe. There’s something about it all that is too much too believe.
And my personal favourite…
Dirt. I felt around me. Above, around, below. Dirt was everywhere.
This book wasn’t easy to read. Difficult. Painful. I didn’t expect it to be so bad. So heavy to trudge through. But it was. And now here I am. At the end, and I wonder if my sanity will ever be the same again.
≫ The setting:
Speaking of the writing—this is supposed to be England in the sixteenth century, right? Then why did it read so modern? I have not lived in England or the 1500s, but I could sound more authentic than this book. Only the monarchy, the fashion, and the lone pub (and, like, the occasional mention of ~vellum~) in the novel really remind you of the setting. Otherwise, The Witch Hunter could literally have been set in, say, a small town in modern America. I would’ve forgiven this novel many of its faults if it had nailed the historic setting but…nope. The speech was mostly modern, the narrative read like your average dystopian…And my number one pet peeve: okay. Let’s set the record straight right now:
OK originated in the US in the mid-1800s. Why is it in your alternate medieval England? Speech is just about the most basic research ever.
Also what is with the timelines for this book? Like, three years before the burnings hadn’t begun yet, and you’re telling me that Blackwell groomed an entire army of young soldiers in just that time? And the plague started after the discord between Reformists and Persecutors. So witches were persecuted even before this? What is worldbuilding lol.
This book seriously vacillates between tones. On the one hand, it has the king literally rape Elizabeth; Elizabeth lives through a devastating plague that kills all of her family; Elizabeth has to deal with loneliness, acceptance, and ultimately, betrayal. And then it has the feel of a seriously lighthearted romp in the middle. They dress up and go to parties?! That’s not to say that I don’t think lighthearted novels can deal with serious issues. I’m saying the tone of the book ended up stealing the gravity and darkness of the themes that could have lent it enormous depth.
≫ The protagonist:
Witch hunting is a really serious business. And you’re just a girl.
Elizabeth is about as lively as a piece of cardboard. She has the personality of my breakfast cereal. Actually, that’s unfair to my cereal. The Witch Hunter‘s writing style is entirely to blame for this, IMO—very very few of her emotions really come through because of all that telling! The book insists that Elizabeth is scared. Okay. The book insists that Elizabeth is angry. Okay. The book insists that Elizabeth has emotions, promise! Okay. Elizabeth elicited literally no emotional response from me. She is, to put it frankly, boring. Reading her POV is a little like being on some crazy painkillers. You’re numb all. The. Time. The thing is, Elizabeth is a sixteen-year-old female witch hunter who is supposedly one of the best, but has to take shit for being a petite girl, which could have been so wonderfully explored. And…the book begins with her drinking herself into oblivion because the guy she likes has a thing for another girl. Killer intro, right? Her character lures you in with the promise of badassery but leaves you majorly hanging.
Does Elizabeth have bigger problems while she chugs absinthe? Doesn’t seem like it, but you bet! And what’s the most that’s mentioned about how she feels about this? Her best friend thinks she’s been ‘unhappy’ lately (looking back on that conversation, the wording was pretty cringe-worthy there. Tactful.) What about her feelings?! She suffers something really, really terrible. The thing that happens to her that could really have made me sympathise with her, that could have given her some emotions, is glossed over in a manner I find borderline disgusting. If you’re going to bring up something like a royal using someone for sex, don’t just put it out there and leave it like there’s nothing wrong with it! Especially the depth of the betrayal and ugliness behind that awful situation, which is later revealed—and yet Elizabeth doesn’t seem fazed by that either! In fact, her lack of a reaction made it feel like a plot point to move the story forward and it’s absolutely dismissed afterwards (hello, Defy!).
Because I know you now. And the you I know – brave and strong, but still so frightened and vulnerable – isn’t someone I can hate.
And here’s another thing about protags (especially ‘spunky’ or ‘tough’ heroines) that I hate. Book says Elizabeth is brave. Love interest says Elizabeth is brave. Okay. Stop telling me she is brave! Having another character say it doesn’t make it any less of a cheap telling technique. The next time I hear some YA love interest tell the heroine how brave and strong she is, I will drive my fist into a wall. We used to talk a lot about how we need strong heroines. Now, remember that thing making the rounds of the Internet talking about writing real women? That applies so much to YA. I’m sick of reading about “tough heroines” who have no apparent flaws and nothing else going for them. That’s just a Mary Sue in different clothing. Give me a real girl. And I don’t mean a tough heroine who cries sometimes and has boy problems.
And her witch hunter training—that’s cool, right? In fact, that training makes little to no sense either. According to that extremely confusing timeline, she’s been training for not more than three years. What was she doing before that? Who knows? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ And it really shows when, at the very first scene, Elizabeth and fellow hunter Caleb spend pages whispering to each other while necromancers chant a spell in front of them.
“What do you think?” I whisper. “Is it a ghost?”
He shakes his head. “I don’t think so. It’s too. I dunno…”
That does not give the right impression of either of them to me, straight off the bat.
≫ The other characters:
They’re really not much better—totally one-dimensional. What is depth? John is like, sweet but tortured, and the typical healer—kind, forgiving, etc., etc. George is the typical jester/joker. At least I liked Fifer’s personality, but by the end of the novel I was so past caring for any of them. Nicholas, we know literally nothing about but wow he wants to stop people from being burned what a good guy. Also what is with him sending kids into a mission pretty much blind? They knew nothing! And Humbert is supposed to be their babysitter? I must say, these Reformist types are pretty dense. They just picked Elizabeth up without asking about her at all—she could’ve easily been a plant. They did like zero research into her background. How they didn’t know she wasn’t a maid is quite beyond me. Schuyler would be interesting if every YA UF ever didn’t have a sassy, flirtatious non-human with dubious intentions/morals who is romantically involved with one of the gang…The king, we never meet. The queen is so insignificant that we don’t even know her name (Honestly. We get the name of Caleb’s courtly lady friend, and not the queen’s?).
It’s only now I realise how deep that plague of ambition has spread inside him. Like a disease, it rules him now: his thoughts, his actions, the things he chooses to see, the things he chooses to ignore.
Blackwell and Caleb got on my nerves so much because they had a textbook weakness/villainous tendency—ambition. Of. Course. Kids, it’s bad to aspire to anything higher than what’s handed to you. The good guys are always humble and kind and only want to overthrow the government if they’re burning people. They would NEVER EVER EVER think of being, say, social climbers or ambitious officials. Conversely, no social climber or ambitious official is EVER EVER EVER one of the good guys. If you see that gleam of ambition, watch out because they are greedy and will probably stab you in your sleep if it means getting their promotion. How. Bloody. Predictable.
≫ The romance:
Instead, all I’m thinking about is John. The smell of lavender and spice, the faint trace of lemons. The way he looks at me, the press of his body against mine, so close I can feel the rapid beat of his heart. It matches my own.
At least the romance progresses quite nicely in the beginning—slow, rather sweet—UNTIL IT SUDDENLY ESCALATES INTO INSTALOVE. This, people, is why we can’t have nice things. Also the sprinkle of our old friend girl on girl hate in the form of Chime.
I’ve got half a mind to grab a fistful of that black hair, drag her into the woods, and cram that letter down her throat…
Would the story have suffered without her? No. I’d certainly have cringed less.
≫ To summarise: this book was bleh. Unspecial to the core. It constantly tries to tell you things, but it never gives you the evidence to convince you of them. Hopefully I’ve given you enough evidence to support what I think of it—predictable, boring characters, uses rape as a plot device, instalove, boring setting, boring storyline…pass. The one perk? Well, it was quick. Not painless, though.
I received a free galley of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All quotes are taken from an advance copy and are subject to change.