Book Review: The Witches of Eileanan by Kate Forsyth

Title: The Witches of Eileanan

Author: Kate Forsyth

Publisher: Ace

Publication Date: July 1, 1998

Genres: Epic Fantasy

Shelves: Female-fronted, female-author

Not that this is likely to surprise anybody, but I feel the need to preface this review with the fact that I read a lot. I’m usually juggling 2-3 review books at a time, with an electronic ARC I can read in bed while my Goddess sleeps and a physical paperback or hardcover I can read on the couch while the family watches TV. Even with all of that, though, I always have an mass-market paperback plucked from the shelves that I can carry everywhere, reading as I walk or while I stand in line. It’s those leisure reads that keep me fresh.

For the last few months, that mass-market paperback read has been The Witches of Eileanan by Kate Forsyth, an epic fantasy from the late 90s that has survived two moves and numerous purgings of the bookshelves. When I finished binging through Kristen Britain’s Green Rider series, I had a few next-reads I was considering – Elizabeth Haydon’s The Symphony of Ages, Janny Wurts’ Wars of Light and Shadow, and Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books among them – but something just drew me to high fantasy magic of witches, dragons, and faery creatures.

This is a book that is both familiar and fresh at the same time. It starts to read like a traditional high fantasy, with a coming-of-age heroine in Isabeau, who seems far too sweet and innocent for her own good. Appearances, however, can be deceiving. As the story progresses, it grows in both scope and cast, revealing this to be a truly epic tale of political and magical warfare, with secrets and conspiracies that get darker as we go. That Isabeau is only a part of the story is, perhaps, not a huge surprise, but her fate in this first volume is shockingly violent and painful. I went into the second half expecting a series of close escapes to keep the tension high, but . . . well, let’s just say Forsyth is not playing around here.

In many ways, this first book is just an introduction, a chance to meet the characters, discover the world, and learn the facets of the overall conflict. As a result, the pacing lags at times as we sit through stories and speeches designed to educate us alongside the characters, but none of it ever feels forced or artificial. The way Forsyth teases out the details, though, makes us hungry to know more. The second half of the story is where the big reveals come in, exposing who the true players are and what their motivations are, and that’s where coming-of-age becomes truly epic. It’s clear this is a far bigger story than even Meghan suspects.

The forests, the abandoned Towers, and the mountain lairs of the dragons are the big set pieces here, and they are exactly what I was looking for. As much as I appreciate the novelty of ‘new’ urban or desert settings, sometimes I just want to lose myself in geographies like this. We don’t get to see nearly enough of the seaside locales here, but what we do has me anxious to get wet in future volumes. The characters are both challenging and complex, heroes and villains alike, sympathetic and understandable, even if they’re not always likable. That willingness to frustrate the reader, to leave us exasperated, was actually a major draw for me.

I’m glad I waited to give The Witches of Eileanan a read, because I suspect I wouldn’t have appreciated nearly as much when it was first released. It really is a mature sort of fantasy, a novel for readers who are willing to invest the time and focus in a world that refuses to spoon-feed them answers. Onto The Pool of Two Moons next!

Rating: ♀ ♀ ♀ ♀

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