YA Weekend Audio: Sightwitch by Susan Dennard
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Book 0.5 of The Witchlands
Publisher: Listening Library (February 13, 2018)
Length: 7 hrs and 18 mins
Narrators: Cassandra Campbell, Bahni Turpin, Saskia Maarleveld, full cast
I don’t know what it is about the Witchlands series, but both novels that are out thus far have received middling ratings from me when I reviewed them, and yet I just keep coming back for more! Still, if I had to guess, I would credit the simply sublime world Susan Dennard has created. Say what you will about her storytelling and characters, but the incredible imagination and effort that she has put into the world-building here is second to none. I probably would have continued the series anyway, so when I found out about this prequel novella which serves “as a set up to Bloodwitch as well as an expansion to the world”, I thought it would make sense to read it and learn more about the magic while waiting for the next novel installment.
Sightwitch takes place approximately a year before the main series starts, following a Sightwitch Sister named Ryber Fortiza (whom we first met aboard Prince Merik’s ship, if you’ve read Truthwitch). Told through a series of journal entries and other pieces of documents, her story will take us on an adventure into the mountain which houses the convent of her order, a close-knit sisterhood that worships the goddess Sirmaya.
They say Sightwitches are made, not born. Young acolytes serving at the temple are eventually called to receive the gift of Sirmaya, becoming blessed with her Sight. For years, Ryber’s mentors have told her that she is special, that one day she will be called under the mountain and become one of the greatest Sightwitches to have ever lived. But day after day, as others are called forth and not her, her hope begins to fade. As someone who always follows the rules, Ryber can’t seem to figure out what’s wrong or what more she could be doing to get her goddess to summon her.
Then one day, everything changes. Sirmaya still does not call upon Ryber, but she does call upon everyone else. Ryber’s threadsister Tanzi was the first to go beneath the mountain and not return, and after that, more are taken each day until Ryber is the only one left. Something is happening to the goddess, and it is now up to Ryber to seek the truth.
Despite being a minor character in the main series, Ryber has always been a fascinating figure. We also know relatively little about her, so a novella telling her story was a very welcome addition. Not only does it reveal a lot about our protagonist’s life before Truthwitch, it also tells the origin story of how she became a Sightwitch Sister. The presentation of the novel was a nice touch as well, with the journal entries giving insight into Ryber’s unique voice. The in-depth exploration into her character gave me a better understanding of her motivations, and I liked how I got to see the way she viewed herself and how others viewed her.
The other major highlight of Sightwitch is, of course, the scene detailing the first meeting between Ryber and Kullen, the threadbrother of Prince Merik. The young man had somehow found himself deep underground, lost and bedraggled with no memory of how he got there. Terrified of this dirty and scary looking stranger who seemed to have appeared out of nowhere, Ryber is reluctant to have anything to do with Kullen at first, but eventually she realizes they must work together in order to survive the many obstacles beneath the Sightsister mountain. Gradually, a friendship develops between them, and considering the limitations of the format and length of this novella, I felt this portrayal was done exceptionally well.
I also loved the magic in this. The world of The Witchlands is filled with many types of witches—individuals who possess the power to manipulate the forces and elements around them. These powers, called “witcheries”, can manifest in different ways, with some being rather straightforward (like an Airwitch’s ability to control wind and air currents) and others being quite complex and abstract (such as a Threadwitch’s power to allow him or her to read people’s emotions and see the literal ties that bind relationships). I’ve always felt that Sightwitch magic falls in the latter camp of being one of the more unique and complicated witcheries. The world-building is as exquisite as ever as we explore the mysteries of the Sight in Ryber’s story, learning the ways of the Sightwitch convent and the way Sisters are called forth to receive Sirmaya’s gift. With each chapter, our understanding of the Witchlands universe grows a little more.
What surprised me most about Sightwitch was how much I actually enjoyed it. Typically, I find most novellas to be too short for much story or character development, but in the case of Sightwitch, it worked well. There’s enough to feel a connection with the characters even if you are newcomer to this world, and the story was also relatively straightforward, so the more streamlined the better. I think overall this has given me a new enthusiasm for the series, and I look forward to seeing how everything will play out once we get back to the main novels.
Audiobook Comments: The Sightwitch audiobook is narrated by a full cast—a rare treat, especially for a relatively short piece like this. The voice actors and actresses were chosen well; everyone performed marvelously with varied accents, tones, feelings, and inflections. The only downside is that the print edition contains some art and illustrations so you’ll be missing out on those, but otherwise I would highly recommend the audio.