Witchy Eye (The Witchy War series book 1) by D.J. Butler (book review).

Sarah Calhoun has lived with her disfigured eye for all of her fifteen years. She knows what it looks like: red, shiny, swollen, bulging, and useless. She’s used to the stares she gets in town. Most people are polite enough to avoid looking at it or her, and if they aren’t, she can always hex them. So when a Yankee preacher comes to Apalachee and tries to kidnap her, she does not take it kindly, but her small-time jinxes are not enough.

This preacher has the Emperor of Pennsland’s power behind him, along with the Imperial Guard. Sarah is forced to flee from everything she knows into a dangerous world of politics, religion, and gramarye to claim her rightful place in the world. With only her cousin, Calvin, and a mysterious monk named Thalanes, Sarah must race to New Orleans to discover the truth of her past so she can claim her future. Keep in mind that I am not a huge fan of alternate history, mostly because I am terrible at remembering historical names and dates, when I talk about ‘Witchy Eye’, as I have probably missed a thousand references that would be obvious to someone with a better grounding in history.

I could not place an exact moment in history when our world and the novel’s began to diverge. There is no failed assassination of a monarch or a different side winning a war. Instead, the makeup of the world has altered its history. Magic is real. A strange race called ‘Firstborn’ divides Christianity over the question of souls. Beastfolk combine both human and animal characteristics, anything from ducks to wolves, and serve their mysterious, mystical ruler, the Heron King. Magic and magical populations combine with our history to bring us Sarah’s America, where an Emperor is elected, a Spanish prince rules New Orleans, and the Emperor of Pennsland (Pennsylvania) is attempting to pacify Ohio. Overlaying all this political drama is the religious drama, where many sects of Christianity battle over souls, magic, saints, and pretty much what they fight over now, but with less centralization.

All this ‘stuff’ makes D.J. Butler’s ‘Witchy Eye’ feel alive and real, but it also led me to quite a bit of name fatigue. Fully two-thirds of the novel is there to acclimate the reader to the world, with only small chunks of plot movement that might turn some readers away. It does not descend entirely into exposition, which is the downfall of many a complicated world. However, it did have me begin to confuse places, names, and religious sects to the point where I gave up and just went with the flow. The complication is both a feature and a flaw in this novel, which will grab some readers and turn others away.

The story shifts through the perspectives of several characters. Sarah, of course, as she is the spark that sets the rest of the characters in motion. Calvin and Thalanes get their turns as well, but so do other allies and antagonists. These different points of view add to the depth of the world-building and the many complicating factors of Sarah’s quest.

The story starts with a male gaze being turned on Sarah and her strangely formed eye. ‘Witchy Eye’ does pass the Bechdel Test but only just. Only one conversation is between two women and not about a man, but they’re speaking about perceptions and how to lead, so while it isn’t about a specific man, it is about existing in a male-dominated world. Sarah’s power does not come from her gender or in spite of it. Accidents of birth and blood gave her political and mystic power. She is not forced to rely on a man to save her. She chooses to. Her agency allows this book to avoid being the usual damsel used as a pawn storyline that has gotten rather old.

‘Witchy Eye’ does require some commitment from a reader. It starts slow, and the arc of the story basically demands you continue to the rest of the trilogy to get resolution, if that’s what you’re after. It feels like old-school fantasy. Tad Williams’ ‘Dragonbone Chair’ kept springing to mind as I read it, perhaps due to the “young misfit suddenly pursued by powers and must discover true heritage” vibes. What lifts ‘Witchy Eye’ from that run-of-the-mill plot is the detailed world.

Originally published in 2017, when it was a finalist for Best Alternate History at Dragoncon, this new edition comes with a preface from the author. In this intricate world, the reader is introduced to various characters, locations, and conflicts that create an immersive experience. While the complexity of the world might be a double-edged sword, attracting some readers and repelling others, it ultimately sets ‘Witchy Eye’ apart from other works in the genre.

As Sarah embarks on her journey to uncover her past and secure her future, readers are given an opportunity to explore a unique alternate history filled with magic, politics, and religion. As the story unfolds, the balance between world-building and character development is maintained, offering a rich and engaging reading experience for those willing to invest the time and effort into this trilogy.

Overall, ‘Witchy Eye’ is a novel that will appeal to fans of intricate alternate history and fantasy, with its detailed world-building, a diverse cast of characters, and an intriguing premise. The commitment required from the reader may be a hurdle for some, but for those who persevere, the story offers an engaging and immersive journey into a world filled with magic, mystery, and adventure.

LK Richardson

April 2023

(pub: Baen, 2023. 592 page enlarged paperback. Price: $17.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-98219-236-5)

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