I read pure fantasy infrequently, though the ones I have read I have enjoyed for the most part. Witchlanders, the debut novel by Lena Coakley, falls into that category. Full disclosure: I picked it up only because I heard her speak at a recent conference where she was accepting an award. I very much liked what she had to say and it made me want to read her book.
Since his father’s death, Ryder has been in charge of the small patch of scraggy earth he and his family farms to eke out a meager existence. On top of the grueling work, he also must look after his younger sisters and most of all his mother, who is descending into madness, reverting to her old ways when she was young and lived with the Red witches. She eats Maiden’s woe to cause the visions and makes crazy prophecies. But when a new magic comes and threatens the village, Ryder is forced to consider that his mother might not be crazy after all. If he wants to save his sisters and his village, he will have to rethink everything he has ever believed in.
The best thing by far about this book is Coakley’s lyrical writing style. The way she describes the “Chilling”, the coming of winter. The way magic works in the Witchlands, by singing voices. It is very beautiful her world. Though the story can be hard to follow- with many characters and all that world-building exposition necessary when you are creating a whole new place, it is worth while. The characters are well-rounded – flawed but well meaning. There are enough twists and turns to keep the reader doubting about the cause of the evil- red herrings well-placed and subtle.
All in all, this is a strong first novel, with a different take on the way magic works. Although the book begs for a sequel, Coakley seems reticent to announce one. Will there? Won’t there? I hope there will be.