15 March 2021

#Review - Witherward by Hannah Mathewson

Cover by Julia Lloyd

Hannah Mathewson
Titan Books, 16 February 2021
Available as: PB, 528pp, e
Source: advance e-copy
ISBN (PB): 9781789094435

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Witherward via Netgalley.

I found Witherward an exciting and absorbing but at time frustrating read.

Introducing Ilsa Ravenswood, orphan and magician's assistant who is scraping a living on the street of Victorian London, the book gives the barest glimpse of her life - though what we see is fascinating - before whisking her away to a parallel London (the "Witherward" of the title), divided between warring magical factions, each with their own talent, for example, the ability to control others' minds, or to see the future.

The clan to which it turn out Ilsa belongs, the Changelings, are able to transform themselves into any animal they wish - useful for fighting or escaping... or a stage magic act: she's already, before joining the Wiherward, learned what she can do as part of her act with Bill, the much decayed stage magician with whom she performs. Ilsa rapidly polishes her abilities, though, once she's introduced to the "Zoo", the seat of the ruling family in Camden (which occupies the location where in our world London Zoo sits).

This was, though, where the book nearly got stuck for me. The short, early section following Ilsa and her friend Martha in "our" London was gleeful, busy and full of fun. (And scary!) Ilsa's escape to the Witherward is fraught with danger and mystery. But on her arrival, the pace slows. A key plot point is that Ilsa's brother Gedeon, the so-called Prince of Camden, has disappeared, leaving the Ravenswoods leaderless and under suspicion from the other factions. But this also means that (due to his absence) there's no unifying figure to greet Ilsa, no sense of what purpose Ilsa might pursue. She spends a lot of time learning about the strange world she's in, and then begins to investigate Gedeon's absence, but before things can really get moving again, a great deal of conversation is needed. Ilsa needs to get ahead around not only the Witherward itself, but the many figures in her own clan (both relatives and hangers-on) and the history of everything. 

This feels, at times, like a big contrast to the action-y content of the opening pages. It comes alive at times when Ilsa plays truant, for example sneaking out to join in a street party but I did wish there were more of these episodes. The Witherward is though, I have to say, a fascinating, well worked out and complex world. And the conundrum of Gedeon's whereabouts is a challenging and many-layered one, akin in many ways to a crime or spy story. So this book always maintains interest and it's also great seeing Ilsa's background and personality unfold. 

Ilsa has grown up under the thumb of a singularly unpleasant guardian (most details here are held back but there's clearly been abuse) which has marked her in many ways, and she finds it hard to come to terms with a family she never knew about and which left her to suffer alone. Trust is slow to build, understandably, and Ilsa very much wants to do things her way but there is so much she doesn't know - and it seems likely that "her way" may get Ilsa into trouble every quickly.

Ilsa does, through this middle part of the book, keep her wits about her and she does focus on tracking down Gedeon. As she discovers more and more answers (and deeper layers of questions!) she begins to appreciate how complex and dangerous life in the Witherward is, and who in her extended family may have their own agendas. That leads to a furious (and glorious!) climax to the book, another change of pace which made me so glad that I read to the end.

Leaving a number of plot strands open, Witherward is clearly setting up the possibility of sequels in this intricately imaged alternate London and I will be here for them when they appear. Ilsa is a formidable protagonist and she's obviously got lots more to see and do.

For more information about Witherward, see the publisher's website here.

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