Witchsign by Den Patrick (Ashen Torment #1)

It's a bleak start to Den Patrick's latest fantasy adventure and the first instalment of his Ashen Torment trilogy. It's been a tough year in the village of Cinderfell and Blacksmith Marek is struggling to make ends meet for him and his two children. But feeding his family isn't his only problem. His daughter Kjellrunn has always been different from the others, and with the Empire's Invigilation on the horizon, he worries he may lose her forever. However, when the tyrannical Synod do come knocking, it's his son, Steiner, not his daughter, they take for possessing the power of the arcane, dragging him away to an uncertain and unforgiving future.

While Witchsign is relayed through alternating viewpoints of the two siblings, it's Steiner's strand that offers most by way of dramatics. Escaping the island of Vladibogdan where he's been imprisoned is no easy feat, and his is an exciting journey fraught with danger and discoveries. Sadly though, Steiner's tendency to be annoyingly cocky and irritatingly lucky often feels quite hard to swallow and occasionally dilutes the overall impact of otherwise well-crafted scenes.

Kjellrunn's development is more gradual, taking longer to reveal itself and feeling far weightier as a result. Hers is a path of woods and witches, revenge and revelations. The emergence of her powers, the responsibility that comes with them and the evolving relationship with her mysterious tutor, Mistress Kamalov, is compelling, and it's hard not to wish for more time with her throughout the course of the novel.

A host of supporting characters help to add colour to the sinister environs: the Cinderwraiths are particularly beguiling, Steiner's new friend Tief adds occasional but much needed light relief, and the Vigilant Silverdust and pirate Romola are intriguing and mysterious in equal measure.

Patrick's combination of a vast, well-built world with an adventurous and exciting fantasy tale makes Witchsign an accomplished and engaging novel that sets a high bar for what promises to be an extremely enjoyable trilogy.

9/10 An accomplished and engaging novel

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