“What is history, but lessons not learned?”
-- Chris Wooding, The Ember Blade
The Bloodwitch novella was my introduction into Timandra Whitecastle’s “Living Blade” world, and it serves as backstory to one of the series’ supporting characters. If this is the level of high-stakes consequences, stimulating magic, and colorful prose I can come to expect from Timandra’s work, then she has earned a new fan.
We are first introduced to Jan as a street hustler, hosting a modified version of three-card-monte that she’s able to win at will. Jan has a knack for controlling and manipulating water with her mind, so she combines this ability with her oddly powerful gift of persuasion to swindle money out of common folk. We soon learn than Jan leads a double life when she abandons her fellow grifters to sleep at home each night. “Home” turns out to be an upscale manor owned by her rich aunt, who parades Jan around like a prized heifer ready to be auctioned off to the most noble suitor. Both of Jan’s lives seem to be hurtling towards disaster until a mysterious man shows up in Jan’s life, and immediately takes an interest in her abilities.
“Jan took a shaky breath and caught Jochanan’s gaze from across the room. As though he had read her thoughts. He raised his glass to her in a routine gesture, and it felt like singing into the softest of beds and suffocating under the weight of the feather cushions. It felt like standing alone in a room pressed with bodies, dizzy, restless, her heartbeat pounding in her throat with the desire to get out. It felt like death.”
Jan must make a life-changing decision on how she wants her future to play out, and in doing so, sets off a torrid chain of events that impacts the world at large. She encounters groups of X-Men-adjacent water mages, an ancient cult-like university, a dangerous hierarchy of power and control, a cursed race, and even more packed in to a story that feels too large to fit inside one novella. But somehow it does, and although the pace is breakneck at times, Whitecastle chooses to share landmark scenes that best displays the progression of Jan’s character. It’s a fine line to walk, as there are some time jumps that had potential to show some interesting scenes of learning and growth. Instead, we focus on stories that are both more personal, diving into Jan’s tragic past, as well as events more grandiose, such as how the history of the ancients is doomed to repeat itself.
There are several prevalent themes in the story I could discuss, but I’m going to focus on two of them that stood out the most. Jan’s progression in the book is comparable to Walter White, who Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan was famously quoted as wanting to turn his beloved character “from Mr. Chips into Scarface.” Jan certainly didn’t start out as a gentle English schoolmaster, but her progression into something darker and more vicious is a slippery slope, and a fascinating one to witness. Jan is cocky, which makes her dangerous. She lies, she questions authority, and she shows signs of ruthlessness. As her power grows, so does her ability to persuade and bend others’ wills to her command. How much is she a product of her environment, and how much is she the cause of it?
The mind-controlling persuasion techniques are also an interesting concept in this story. We witness some characters train to utilize these abilities, but it is discouraged to practice these tools on each other. “Know that these techniques exist, but do not use them.” One character ridicules this theme, thinking that at all times, everyone is utilizing skills of persuasion. These skills are directly influential on the result of any given communication. How could they not be practiced on each other? It is argued that this channel of artificial persuasion is human nature, tuned to a higher degree. This gave me pause and allowed me to think of how and why we phrase our requests in certain ways to achieve specific goals. Is it immoral to want to elevate that ability to achieve what you seek? What if the intention is involuntary?
Overall, I quite enjoyed this story, and read it in one sitting. Whitecastle does an admirable job of quickly introducing ideas, settings, and conflicts in a fresh and engaging manner. Every time I thought I knew where the story was headed, it veered off into unchartered territory, keeping me guessing as well as engrossed. There was an uneasy sense of malevolence that hung over the story, giving me a sense that I was witnessing a car crash in slow motion. It was an impressive feat to pull off in such a short novella. Like others, I wish it could have gone on longer, and spent a bit more time delving into details that were only mentioned in passing. Though I also feel like it did an excellent job introducing me to a talented new author, and the potential in the world she has created. A recommended read.
Review by Adam Weller
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