Warrior and Witch by Marie Brennan – Review

From its cover one might suspect Marie Brennan’s Warrior and Witch to be a fantasy-romance hybrid, but there is actually very little romance in this tale of magic, politics and cultural change. Also misleading about the cover is its failure to note that this is a sequel to Brennan’s previous novel Doppelganger (the story, and this review, contain spoilers for that book). The omission of lineage is unfortunate because Warrior and Witch is not the best introduction to Brennan’s work, nor is it as good a story as she is capable of.

Marie Brennan

The fantasy world that Brennan creates worships a Goddess in five aspects; each aspect represents both a stage of life and an element. There are Fire (Maiden), Air (Bride), Water (Mother), Earth (Crone) and Void (non-existence). “Witches” in these books are women who worship the Goddess through the use of elemental magic. The organization of the witches mirrors the Goddess, with a group of witches (a “Ray”) dedicated to each of the five elements. Within each Ray are three subgroups (“Paths”): Hand, Head and Heart. Each Path has a leader, called a Key, who reports to the leader of their Ray, called a Prime. The five Primes, and under them the fifteen Keys, govern the witches.

Witches are created as infants. A ceremony creates a “channel” for magic in a newborn by separating out the Void part of the child, leaving only the four aspects focused on life. Removing the Void aspect of the child creates a physical representation of that aspect in the world, a doppelganger or identical twin of the infant. The soulless doppelganger is usually killed immediately, but occasionally they escape death. When this happens, a witch must hunt down and kill her doppelganger, or else gradually lose control of her magic and be the death of herself and those around her.

This long-standing belief is thrown into chaos however by the arrival of Mirei, a witch who has discovered a way to merge with her doppelganger (a warrior, hence the book’s title) rather than killing it. In doing so she has gained access to Void magic, something no witch has ever achieved.

The witches are faced with a choice: to accept Mirei and reject hundreds of years of tradition, or to reject Mirei as an abomination and hunt down the remaining doppelgangers. Unsurprisingly, there is division within the witches, and the leadership core of Primes fractures. Warrior and Witch is the chronicle of that split: half the book deals with Mirei’s attempts to rescue other doppelgangers at risk from the traditionalists; the other half deals with the political machinations of the group supporting Mirei, led by Satomi, the Void Prime, to rally support and deal with the dissidents.

If this sounds more than a little like the split and subsequent machinations of the Aes Sedai in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, well, yes. Readers who enjoy the chapters of Jordan’s books that deal with Tower politics are good candidates to enjoy Warrior and Witch. However, there is here none of the world-building that is present in Jordan’s work, or indeed in most works of fantasy that take place outside of our world and history.

There is a noticeable lack of description and detail; setting in particular gets short shrift. When dialogue, thought and action are edited out, the lack of detail in descriptions of setting (over the course of three pages in this sample) becomes apparent:

There was a shattering moment of nothingness — then she was in the wood behind Silverfire. […] A foot slammed into her lower back and threw her into a tree. […] She blinked her vision clear in the dim shade of the wood. […] They began to walk toward the Silverfire compound. Mirei had chosen a familiar clearing in the woods as her target. […] They were in the compound by now. […] They headed for the tower that stood at the center. […] They arrived at the door to the building that stood at the tower’s base.

The paucity of detail provided makes the world empty and sterile, vague and difficult to imagine. It also makes any inclusion of detail leap out, because such inclusion is always purposeful: the foreshadowing is not subtle in Warrior and Witch.

Unfortunately this is not the only issue with the book’s writing. Brennan is a more-than-competent technical writer and her writing does occasionally build into the sort of flow that can carry a reader along. Jarring, discordant notes lurk every few pages of the book, however — the sort that knock a reader out of the story and cry out for another few drafts and another round or two of editing.

Perhaps most pervasive is the overuse of emphasis by all characters. Nearly every page has one or more words italicized for emphasis in thought or dialogue; on one page (155) there are 10 separate words and phrases that are emphasized.

One gets the feeling that Brennan does not trust either her readers or her own writing, that she wants to make sure we experience her characters as sounding exactly as she hears them — rather than, more powerfully, how we might hear them ourselves. But there’s a boy-who-cried-wolf factor here: when so much is emphasized, it becomes less emphatic, especially when the emphasis is needless.

“If it is a trap — or even if it isn’t, but we run into serious trouble anyway — then you get out of there immediately. No hesitation. No waiting for me.”

Mirei stared at her. “You mean leave you there.”

Ashin met her gaze without flinching. “Yes.”

Beyond this are a number of other issues of craft. The third-person limited narrative voice breaks point-of-view on several occasions, either by giving information a character could not know (“Mirei knocked on the Grandmaster’s door, then went in when Jaguar responded.

He was at his desk with a stack of papers he covered before she came in.”) or, in a different form of this, via “dramatic” sentences that steal drama by presaging the content that follows (“Indera [was] sure she was going to hear another lecture on how it wouldn’t be bad, she’d still be herself, just more […] She was wrong.”). Related to this is an aversion to dramatic scenes.

Many potentially dramatic moments of the book take place “off screen” — we are only told about them after the fact. Given that the point of dramatic scenes is to evoke emotion, it’s no surprise that the book is much drier than it might be. The lack of detail noted previously, and the use of common nouns as proper nouns, add to the rather unfantastic feeling: word choices are for the most part easy to understand but never tug at the imagination.

There are additionally anachronistic usages and dialogue: a character thinks of obstacles as “potholes in the road” (a phrase that originated in the late 19th/early 20th century) and speaks of “killing two birds with one stone.” Other word choices seem somewhat academic and inappropriate for the setting, as when Mirei tosses off words like “metaphysics” and “theology” in an explanation to 11-year olds.

The characters in Warrior and Witch are largely of a piece with the writing, functional but lacking any sort of sensuality. Mirei is direct, bold and pragmatic, but not nearly as detailed and interesting as she might be. She is flawless and unconflicted; the product of the merger of two consciousnesses, the question of whether Mirei is a new consciousness, a new person, or the sum of her components and their memories, interests and moralities is never adequately dealt with.

Satomi, the other lead character, is more interesting and convincing. She uses her authority as Void Prime to side with Mirei for reasons both political and personal; having killed her own doppelganger, Satomi sees in Mirei both an admission of guilt and a chance at redemption. Satomi is also the closest we have to a modern Western point of view in the book.

Even more than Mirei, it is Satomi who begins to question all the assumptions on which the society of witches has been based. The contrast between her very human motivations and the complex web of ruthlessly practical political machinations she spins is one of the highlights of the book.

“She didn’t get a trial for the same reason that some cities will lock plague victims up to die, without allowing healers to visit them,” Satomi said, choosing the brutal image deliberately. “To minimize the risk that infection will spread.”

For a book that recounts the exploits of magic users who study magic as a system, the magic system in Warrior and Witch is somewhat awkward and suffers again from a lack of detail. The premise is interesting enough: magic is effected through a pattern of sounds (witches sing spells) and movement. Brennan though gives us no good sense of what is possible with witch magic. Certain spells can be done from a great distance, certain spells require line-of-sight, and others require touch — with no discernible pattern.

Trained warriors fear witches, yet witches in combat scenes seem rather ineffectual, casting small detonations that make their opponent “stumble” and spells that light clothes on fire. Overall it is too systematic to feel magical, but too lacking in detail to be satisfying as a system.

There is also a bit of the “Harry Potter magic syndrome”: spells used at one point of the story are ignored at other points where they would have been useful; in other cases spells are introduced only when the plot requires them. Indeed, the plot seems to advance as much on coincidence and “I should have thought of that” moments as it does on character actions. This is unfortunately true right up until the rather unsatisfying end of the book, which contains both an inexplicable use of magic and an overly quick and easy deus ex machina that the political tone of the story ill prepares us for.

Brennan’s strength as an author is the anthropological perspective she brings to her creation. Her characters believe in their world, and more than in most fantasy the challenge and enjoyment of reading her work comes from experiencing a different belief system rather than a different world.

Unfortunately the interesting ideas present in Warrior and Witch (most carried over from Doppelganger) are never adequately explored, and the aspects of story — character, plotting, setting, writing — feel similarly incomplete. Reading Brennan’s website gives some idea of the gestation of the novel: her publisher agreed to publish her first novel, Doppelganger, but also wanted a sequel where none was originally intended. Doppelganger was published in April 2006; Warrior and Witch in October 2006. Unsurprisingly, this second novel quite simply feels rushed.