Thursday, June 11, 2015

Review: The Witch Hunter by Virginia Boecker

Publisher: Hachette Children's Books
Release Date: June 2nd 2015
Source: Netgalley
Rating: 3 Stars

Your greatest enemy isn't what you fight, but what you fear.
Elizabeth Grey is one of the king's best witch hunters, devoted to rooting out witchcraft and doling out justice. But when she's accused of being a witch herself, Elizabeth is arrested and sentenced to burn at the stake.
Salvation comes from a man she thought was her enemy. Nicholas Perevil, the most powerful and dangerous wizard in the kingdom, offers her a deal: he will save her from execution if she can break the deadly curse that's been laid upon him.
But Nicholas and his followers know nothing of Elizabeth's witch hunting past--if they find out, the stake will be the least of her worries. And as she's thrust into the magical world of witches, ghosts, pirates, and one all-too-handsome healer, Elizabeth is forced to redefine her ideas of right and wrong, of friends and enemies, and of love and hate.
Virginia Boecker weaves a riveting tale of magic, betrayal, and sacrifice in this unforgettable fantasy debut.

It's no secret that I love fantasy. And it's also no secret that I love female-led fantasy. So for the most part, I adored The Witch Hunter. I read it mostly in one setting; a gripping plot, fantastic pacing and great characters. But I do have one issue with it: the representation of our main character, Elizabeth. 

The Witch Hunter follows sixteen year old Elizabeth Grey, Witch Hunter. And, like in a lot of fantasy, is the only female Witch Hunter in a group of men. While I loved Elizabeth as a character, I have huge issues from a feminist perspective on how she is portrayed to the audience (which is probably my annoyance at fantasy as a genre or any fiction that undermines a strong female character.) 

Firstly, let's talk about the romance. The opening chapter throws the reader straight into the action of this story and we learn aspects of the world as we go, which for a two-book story is a fantastic way to go and there we meet our first round of main characters: the witch hunters. My problems with Elizabeth's character come in Chapter Two. We've already seen the great relationship with her co-hunter Caleb, but now we're seeing that it is a romantic relationship (one sided, obviously) which determines every thought and action Elizabeth makes. At this point, I'm yawning. Sometimes I feel like I need to write an open letter to fantasy writers to let them know it's okay to have a "strong female character" without having to give them a love interest. And it's not the romance which ticks off the feminist part of me, it's the execution. The romantic feelings towards Caleb are made to make her look "weak" and is actually used for reasons why she is making mistakes in her work or cannot concentrate. Romance is a great thing in YA and there are relationships I adore across works of fiction, but romance should not be used in fantasy to make the main female character seem weaker, more relatable or less "challenging" to other characters because it subtracts from great opportunity for character development and instead gives the reader a boy-obsessed teenager who's good with a knife. 

Moving onto my next issue with our lovely Elizabeth - I promise I will tell you why this book rocks too, I did give it 3 Stars! - is the description of her appearance and how this influences interactions with other characters. Again, I think this is another trope amongst the YA fantasy writers on writing 'relatable' characters. Although Elizabeth had to go through intense training, is the only female Witch Hunter, and in fact hunts and fights magical beings, you'd think Boecker would drop the 'small, fragile, and weak' way of making Elizabeth sound. Jeez, this girl has killed people, stop calling her cute! And yes, it may be myself over-thinking and over-analysing, but every time I read a supposedly strong character be described in such a way it is as if the writer is reenforcing gender roles. By that, I mean that Elizabeth's 'girlishness' is used for shock-factor of her ability. By concentrating on the characters  looks and determining their ability by them, you're no worse than suggesting that women should not be in such an active role because they are in fact female. 

However, although this review has focused on the negative things I feel undermine Elizabeth, Boecker makes some fantastic feminist-y statements through her character. While this next bit is the the blurb, I'm going to give you a slight spoiler alert now! You've been warned. Elizabeth is betrayed by those she works with and is excused of witchcraft after being found with herbs that would be used to prevent pregnancy. She needs these herbs because she has been being sexually harassed (and forced to sleep with) the king that she serves. While obviously this is not something to be celebrating, the contextually reference and culturally reference to birth control and consent is extremely important - especially because it is not the sole purpose of the book. I'm lucky enough to live in a country and a society that allows me control over my reproductive rights, however some are not. Noting that The Witch Hunter is set in an alternative 16th Century England, women would not have had these rights. And having your audience aware of this is importance, as for some women around the globe, being mistreated by those of authority is an everyday occurrence. The fact that Boecker used this to develop Elizabeth as a character, but also to portray her in context, I think is a fantastic way to educate your reader but to also make them self-aware. 

While this review has been extremely negative, I did really enjoy The Witch Hunters. Reminding of The Bone Season, I cannot wait for the sequel and how these characters develop. I love fantasy and being thrown into a world with ghosts, pirates, witches and wizards was exciting and allowed me to be immersed in the plot and the action. My only hopes for book 2 are less needless romance or main characters made to look weak, and maybe some more world building and magic, but that may be pushing it. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Leave a comment below and let us know what you think!