Tuesday, February 17, 2009

REVIEW: Witch Ember by John Lawson

My Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

And so the story goes that in the days when gods walked the Earth, a Stone of Power was stolen by Trickster Man. To conceal his crime, he smashed the stone into tiny pieces and baked it into a bread he made for his friend, First Ancestor. Later, when it came time for the God Wejwej to create the first people, they were created from the various parts of First Ancestor. And because First Ancestor had consumed a Stone of Power, a little piece of that stone, along with it's accompanying power, was contained within each person. Most people carry just the tiniest speck or grain, while others like powerful sorcerers and wizards have one of the bigger grains, or even a pebble.

And then we have Esmeree...

We're introduced to Esmeree at around six years of age as a young homeless girl forced to work in the mills for her survival. The world in which she lives is hard and cruel, and most similar to medieval England or Tolkien's Middle Earth, or possibly some combination of the two, with Fey creatures, trolls, night stalkers, and other warrior-like creatures thrown in. The author did a terrific job of creating this fantasy world, with enough description and detail to really pull you in and make you believe you're standing right in the middle of it.

Esmeree has her own piece of stone residing within her as well, a rather large one within her chest. And though she doesn't yet fully comprehend the power lurking there, she feels it's constant tingle and knows enough to keep it secret as she learns more. Through the teachings of various people in her life, she eventually comes into her power and becomes a powerful witch herself. But unfortunately, once that power is brought to the attention of higher ups in the church and government, they will attempt to use it to their own ends.

The Medianist Church—which controls the magically-barren lands of the Seven Kingdoms and the Palpi city-states including Cliffs Reach where Esmeree lives—believes that only men have the mental capacity to carry these sacred embers, and that any female possessing them has surely gone mad or turned to a life of evil and witchcraft. They look upon witches in the same way they look upon the hostile Fée invaders from the magical lands beyond, and both are treated to torture and execution at the hands of the Inquisition, sometimes even at public displays held on festival days. This is definitely patriarchal dictatorship at its worst!

But upon reaching puberty and attaining her goal of becoming a sellaria, a paid mistress to the richer men of the city, Esmeree has unknowingly become a pawn in the Church's plans to discover others with stones. Everything Esmeree has learned so far in her life is in defiance of the Medianist ways, and headstrong as she is, she's not about to start conforming now, even if it means her life is on the line!

Witch Ember is a rich and fulfilling fantasy novel which takes place in an alternate universe. As mentioned above, the world crafted within these pages is extremely well thought out and detailed, as is Esmeree's character, who we follow for about 12 years of her life. The author manages to pull you into this world with his vivid descriptions of both time and place. And the action and violence, which at times captures the worst of human cruelty, can be quite brutal, but fortunately stops short of gore. In creating this unique world, the author also created its own slang and dialect local to the various regions, so you'll find many unfamiliar terms scattered throughout. Fortunately, these new terms appear in italics and their definitions can be found in a comprehensive glossary at the back of the book.

At 480 pages however, this book is not for the faint of heart. Taking me just over four weeks to complete, not counting the few weeks I had to put it aside so I could get a few other things out, I found myself happy to return to it, having grown quite fond of Esmeree. A word I like to use when describing books like this is "dense", referring to the fact that the reading is rich and detailed, like a thick, heavy syrup, which you tend to slowly savor, as opposed to light and fluffy, like a souffle, which goes down quicker. When reading these dense books, I definitely find myself reading slower than I would otherwise lest I miss something, and my one criticism of this book to that end is that there were many times I found the use of the new words, and having to look them up, counterproductive to its reading. Because of the richly detailed world that was painted before me, and the way I found myself pulled into it while reading, coming across a bunch of unfamiliar words would often disrupt that flow and yank me back out. I'd then look up the words in the glossary at the back and reread the relevant passages, replacing the foreign words with their English equivalents so that I could get back the same flow from it. Even if some of the words were discernible by context and didn't require looking up, I still found it disrupted my flow to have a foreign word inserted in the middle of all the English.

To this end, I thought it might help if the author introduced new words for the first time via a footnote at the bottom of the page, while still including the glossary for later look up. Though as another reviewer pointed out, the new language may not even be necessary. Sure it added a little bit to the feel of the place, each place having slightly different words for various common people and things, but I really felt that the created world was so richly drawn anyway that it wouldn't lose all that much without it. At the very least, the author might consider lessening its use in future books if I'm not the only reviewer who felt the overall delivery could be slightly enhanced without it. It would also make it a much easier read when attempting to read in bed or on the eliptical machine. ;)

BookCrossing journal page for this book


Ladytink_534 said...

This sounds really neat and I like the idea of the fantasy world too. The footnote and glossery thing would be extrememly helpful in several books like this (instead they force me to take notes lol)!

WitchEmber said...

Thank you for the review, Cherie! And thank you for your thoughtful, insightful comments.

John Lawson