Ashen Torment #1
HarperVoyager; May 22, 2018
450 pages (PB)
2.3 / 5 ✪
Despite a rather disappointing choice of narrator in Steiner, Witchsign was a lovely fantasy, complete with mystery and magic—the start of a great new series. Until… about its 200th page. At this point, the mystery and adventure dampened, the plot developed serious issues, and the story’s flow completely fell to pieces.
Seventy-five years ago, the dragons fell. The Synod overthrew the rule of fire and magic, hunting the mythic creatures to the ends of the earth until none remained. Thus was the Empire born.
Far to the north lie the Scorched Republics, flanked between the Empire and the Sommerende Ocean. Despite being independent, the republics belong to the Empire in all but name. Northmost of the northern republics is Nordvlast, where the brunt of our story takes place. Steiner lives in Cinderfell, a dreary town tucked up against the Spøkelsea, farthest distant from the Empire of any community on the continent. But even here—where the winters are frigid and the summers short, where ash falls from the sky and the sun rarely shines—the Synod still exert their influence. Every year children below the age of 16 are tested for the Witchsign: the ability to touch and control the elements. If such a child is found, they are shipped off by the Empire, never to be seen again.
Steiner is no witch. A blacksmith’s son, he spends his days in the forge and his nights at the tavern, his eye on the owner’s daughter, Kristofine. A girl who has just begun to return his smiles. A simple life, for a simple man.But he fears the coming Invigilation—the day of testing—regardless. It is not for himself that Steiner worries, but for his sister Kjellrunn. A carefree girl of sixteen, Kjell has always been different. Her hair is a tangle and her body immature, appearing to far younger than her actual age. She spends each day in the forests, communing with the trees, the rock, the ocean. She cares little for the townsfolk, and what they think. For they think she has the Witchsign. Steiner suspects so as well. And even so, Kjell has made it through every testing—all but the last. Steiner is sure this year will be the one she is found out, and taken from them. And he is willing to take any risk to protect her.
Any and every risk.
And he just may have to.
I was quite high on the beginning of this book. One of my top TBR for the year, Witchsign started off well, with a budding romance, a generally likable narrator, a mystery, a conflict, and the promise of much, much more. I was hooked and cruising through; a five-star read for sure.
But… Steiner isn’t the best narrator. Early on he and Kjellrunn share the load rather equally, but later on Steiner shoulders more and more of the story. And he’s… a bit dull. Rash, impulsive, stubborn. There’s nothing wrong with any of this, when it’s well written. But Steiner is not well-written. While the author portrays him as possessive of a keen mind despite his inability to read and write, his hulking frame and his reputation—Steiner’s actions betray him. While early on he seems a thoughtful youth possessed by an impulsive, stubborn streak, later he’s just impulsive, stubborn and rash. I guess this could be chalked up to his development throughout the story, but I just pegged it as bad writing. And though the author continues to paint thought and detail into the prose of Steiner’s chapters and descriptions, the character’s mood consistently contradicts this.
Kjellrunn, meanwhile, offers a thoughtful, provoking POV. Until she doesn’t. And then does, again. See, Witchsign works well enough through the first 300-plus pages. And then it breaks down. The next hundred twenty or so remind me a bit of the first Harry Potter—where the story skips around to the significant moments, while leaving the other parts out in the cold. While that worked (arguably) for Rowling, she used line- and page-breaks to indicate when the story would be taking a breather.
Witchsign doesn’t. I felt like the author was running short on time and provided a bare bones account of the middle, skipped forward to write the ending, and then came back to flesh out the rest. An acceptable tactic, when it works. When you GET to it all. Which e didn’t. What we’re left with is a hundred page gap of poorly written story (so bad in places that I ended up skimming through it a bit), followed by an ending that would’ve worked pretty well if it had matched the preceding events at all. So, while the set-up and middle of the book are good, the lead-in and final battle are nigh-unreadable. Then the wrap-up is back to good. It’s… very frustrating.
The story itself is well-thought out and the world well built—again, until it isn’t. The characters, the development, the plot, the flow—everything takes a break around the two-thirds mark.
Now, if you could just let off there and pick up at the end… but you can’t. Nothing would make sense. Believe me—I tried. Again, Den Patrick has me raving at the beginning and skipping chapters by the end. Quite an unusual feat to pull off more than once. Honestly, it was painful to see the read collapse like it did. And disappointing. A little more time could’ve made all the difference. But… t’was not to be.
Before beginning Witchsign I raved about its beautiful cover and interesting-sounding story. Right away I was hooked, and continued to praise the writing, the mystery and the story. But, like the Boy with the Porcelain Blade before it, that all changed. At around the halfway mark I became disillusioned with Steiner. At the two-thirds mark, became disillusioned with the story. Shortly thereafter, it became nigh-unreadable. If you tough it out to the end, you’re treated to a lovely post-battle wrap up, which only made sense when I figured that the author was running short on time and skipped forward to write the end first. But never got back to the middle. It gets the point across, carries the plot from Point A to B—but barely. And not well.
If you’re on the fence, I’d recommend against it. But, if you, say—have the next book sitting around somewhere already (it was free, which helps), and you want to tough it out… yeah, it’s doable. Wasn’t bad til the 300-page mark. The Ashen Torment continues in Stormtide, published last year. I’ll probably get to it eventually, so I’ll let you know how it goes. An important reminder though: you can’t judge a book by its cover.