Witherward by Hannah Mathewson

February 11, 2021

Welcome to the Witherward, and to a London that is not quite like our own. Here, it’s summertime in February, the Underground is a cavern of wonders and magic fills the streets. But this London is a city divided, split between six rival magical factions, each with their own extraordinary talents – and the alpha of the Changelings, Gedeon Ravenswood, has gone rogue, threatening the fragile accords that have held London together for decades.

Ilsa is a shapeshifting Changeling who has spent the first 17 years of her life marooned in the wrong London, where real magic is reviled as the devil’s work. Abandoned at birth, she has scratched out a living first as a pickpocket and then as a stage magician’s assistant, dazzling audiences by secretly using her Changeling talents to perform impossible illusions. When she’s dragged through a portal into the Witherward, Ilsa finally feels like she belongs.

But her new home is on the brink of civil war, and Ilsa is pulled into the fray. The only way to save London is to track down Gedeon, and he just so happens to be Ilsa’s long-lost brother, one of the last surviving members of the family who stranded her in the wrong world. Beset by enemies on all sides, surrounded by supposed Changeling allies wearing faces that may not be their own, Ilsa must use all the tricks up her sleeve simply to stay alive.

*Checks book-blurb* Welcome to… a London not quite like our own. Sold, I’m in. A historical urban fantasy set in one of my favourite cities? Oh, hell yeah! This has got my name written all over it. Over the years I’ve read many urban fantasy novels that use London as a backdrop and I’m always impressed how authors manage to twist the city into something uniquely their own. The same is true here. London has long been a melting pot of cultures and creeds. It makes perfect sense to me that there would be portals to an alternate version of the city that had that same cosmopolitan air, just a bit more fantastical.

Ilsa has shape-changing abilities that are not the norm in Victorian London.  Hiding in plain sight has been the only way for her to get by. A traumatic event leads Ilsa to another version of the city. A place where magic is an everyday occurrence, a place where she might be able to fit in. There is a real strength to Isla I liked. For years she has only had herself to rely on. When faced with the wondrous streets of a new London she dives straight in. She embraces her new life wholeheartedly; it just feels right. Naturally inquisitive and observant, Isla is the perfect guide to the world Hannah Mathewson has created.  We get to follow Isla while she navigates the cutthroat politics that exist within her new extended family and the other groups in the Witherward.

Mathewson’s alternate version of London is a city chock full of magic and intrigue. Whitechapel is the home of The Whisperers. Sorcerors rule a part of town known as The Heart. The Oracles are based in the Docklands. The Wraiths control the North. The Psi live in the Underground* and finally, The Changelings are in Camden. On the surface, there is an uneasy truce between all these factions. A set of rules has been established to help avoid conflict. Needless to say, many view these restrictions as guidelines at best. Interpretations of laws you don’t want to follow do have a tendency to be somewhat flexible. This fantastical cold war forms the backbone of the entire story. How can these groups, who view one another with constant suspicion, do anything other than fight? There is a sense of change in the air, a city on the brink.

It is the world-building in Witherward that made it for me. It really is exceptional. You can tell the author has spent time considering how the various factions within London interact with one another. The Witherward version of our nation’s capital manages to be comfortably familiar in some regards yet unrecognisable in others. Even the smallest details have been thought about. The Oracles are the perfect example.  Just imagine, you are born with the ability to see the past, the present and the future of all things. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Realistically though, how could your mental health possibly cope? Rather than a blessing, this could be viewed as the ultimate curse. Everything all at once all the time? Of course drug abuse is going to be rife within this part of society. Mathewson explores not only the good but also the bad within the lives of her fantastical beings.

If you are a fan of V.E. Schwab’s Shadow of Magic novels, or the equally awesome Blackhart Legacy trilogy by Liz De Jager, then I predict this is the novel for you. Hannah Mathewson’s debut is a confident, engrossing page-turner. I loved the characters, Fyfe and Captain Fowler for the win! The plot rumbles along with plenty of twists and turns and there is limitless potential for where this could all go next. I hope I get the opportunity to find out.

Witherward is published by Titan Books and is available from 16th February.

There was really only one choice when it came to my musical recommendation to pair with Witherward. The soundtrack to Sherlock Holmes by the mighty Hans Zimmer is a seamless fit. Zimmer’s evocative score is London made of music while Mathewson’s novel is London made of magic. They complement one another perfectly.

*The Underground is not nearly as bad as it sounds, trust me.

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