Witchsign by Den Patrick

July 26, 2018

It has been seventy-five years since the dragons’ rule of fire and arcane magic over Vinkerveld was ended, and the Empire was born. Since, the tyrannical Synod has worked hard to banish all manifestations of the arcane across the lands.

However, children are still born bearing the taint of the arcane, known to all as witchsign. So each year the Emperor sends out his Vigilants across the continent to detect the arcane in these children. Those found tainted are taken, and never seen again. Steiner has always suspected his sister Kjellrunn of bearing witchsign. But when their father’s attempt to protect her from the Invigilation backfires, it is Steiner who is mistakenly taken. However it is not death which awaits Steiner, but an Academy where the children with witchsign learn to master their powers – some at the cost of their lives. Steiner is determined to escape the Academy and protect his sister from this fate.

But powerful enemies await him at every turn, and Steiner finds himself taken on a journey straight into the heart of the Empire’s deepest secrets, which will force him to reconsider everything he has known about witchsign.

The Erebus Sequence is an excellent trilogy, each book better than the last. The faux Renaissance setting, exciting plot and the memorable characters made The Boy with the Porcelain Blade, The Boy Who Wept Blood and The Girl on the Liar’s Throne all first rate reads. When I was offered the opportunity to read the first book in Den Patrick’s new series, The Ashen Torment, I jumped at the chance.

In Vinkerveld, the arcane is viewed with distrust. The Emperor and his Synod ensure every child is checked for any suggestion of magical skill. In a backwater village, Steiner and his sister Kjellrunn live a simple life. This all changes the day the Vigilants come to visit.

From Steiner’s perspective, Witchsign could best be described as the journey to discover his inner hero. At first glance he appears unremarkable. Steiner doesn’t see much of a life beyond the village he grew up in (when it comes to fantasy there is something wonderfully reliable about having a protagonist who works as a smith isn’t there). Circumstance steps in and sets Steiner on a different path however. He can’t accept that his sister is going to be taken away, and sacrifices himself in her stead.  From that moment on, his life is forever changed. Steiner is forced into slavery and servitude. He has to try and overcome a series of difficult obstacles if he has any chance of reconnecting with his family. Each of these challenges change him at a fundamental level. The further he travels, the more glimpses we see of the man he is going to become. By book’s end, Steiner is far removed from the young man we met in the initial chapters.

There is also a nice evolution to Kjellrunn’s character. She is ruled by her emotions and quick to action. Kjellrunn doesn’t bottle anything up. When she is happy you know she is happy, when she is angry you know she is angry. Trying to control the powers she has discovered makes her unpredictable at times. The changes we see in her are far more overt. Steiner’s removal from the family effects Kjellrunn deeply. She knows she is different and that she is the one who should have been taken. Her brother has given his life to protect Kjellrunn, so she becomes determined to save her sibling at any cost.

The chapters alternate the point of view between Steiner and Kjellrun. Steiner meets other people from across Vinkerveld. He gets the opportunity to expand his horizons and learn about other cultures and how they are as also in thrall to the Empire. Back home, Kjellrunn tries to cope with her powers as well as becoming a pariah. Exhibiting any witchsign means she is shunned by the rest of the village.

As the narrative unfolds, we also learn some details about how the Vigilants go about their business. Their fervent work for the Empire means they are feared wherever they go. They see themselves as the protectors of the people but they are little more than puppets. There are also a few tantalising titbits regarding the Emperor. Though he does not appear in the novel, his presence is felt throughout. I can only hope we’ll learn more in future books.

I really enjoyed Witchsign. Den Patrick knows exactly how to craft fantasy that captivates on every page. The Ashen Torment series is off to a flying start. I look forward to discovering what lies in store for Steiner and Kjellrunn.

My musical recommendation to accompany Witchsign is an album called SOL by Sowulo. What with arcane magicks, vengeful spirits, dragons and whatnot the novel has almost a pagan feel to it. Strikes me that a bit of Danish folk music is a perfect fit. Trust me, listen to one while reading the other and be doubly entertained.

Witchsign is published by Harper Voyager and is available now.

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