Saturday, February 13, 2021

Witherward by Hannah Mathewson: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Witherward by Hannah Mathewson

Witherward is the debut novel by Hannah Mathewson. It’s a young adult portal fantasy set in Victorian London and it starts a series of the same name. I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Witherward is a book that relies heavily on its unique world, occasionally at the expense of the plot. Alongside with and unbeknownst to the normal world, Otherworld, is Witherward where seasons and times of day are the exact opposite, with some similarities to Otherworld but with its own rich history. It’s populated by people with magical abilities. There are Changelings who can change into any animal or person, or make a more attractive version of themselves; Sorcerers can manipulate the world around them, Psis can move things with their mind, Oracles see the future, Whisperers can read and manipulate minds, and Wraiths have supernatural strength and speed, and they can move through walls. They all hate one another and Changelings above all. London has been divided into sectors to maintain a semblance of peace, but strife and warfare are constant.

Ilsa is a seventeen-year-old Changeling who has lived her whole life in Otherworld London not knowing why she has the skill to change into animals and people. She’s fled the orphanage she grew up in because they treated her like a devil there, and has supported herself with thieving and, later, as a magician’s assistant, relying on her special skills. Then—out of the blue—she’s whisked to the Witherward London to save her life. But she might not be much safer there.

Ilsa learns that she’s a long-lost daughter of the leading family of Changelings. Most of her family are dead in the hands of a secret group, but she has a brother, Gedeon. Only, he’s gone missing. With the help of people who lead and protect the Changelings, she sets out to finding him. But it’s not easy to learn the rules of her new world, and there are secrets and spies everywhere.

The plot is fairly good, but rather slow to unfold. The book consists mostly of scenes where Isla either learns a new skill or gets to know the people around her, and only every now and then the search for Gedeon moves forward. But there are enough action scenes to keep the reader’s interest. True to the YA genre, there’s romance too, though it doesn’t dominate the story or become the driving force of Ilsa’s actions.

Ilsa is a great character, resourceful and resilient, despite traumas from her childhood that occasionally cripple her. The side characters are interesting too, with their own backstories and ghosts. They never really come together as an ensemble, but that reflects the state the household is in because of Gedeon’s absence. Everyone is distrustful of everyone else. The ending is good and complete enough to make the book work as a standalone, but it sets the stage for the next book too, which makes me want to continue with the series. All in all, a very good debut.


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