Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Witches of Eileanan by Kate Forsyth

Posted by Simcha 5:03 PM, under | 6 comments

Abandoned as an infant, Isabeau is taken in by the elderly witch, Meghan, who raises her with love and affection. In their secret pocket of the forest, Meghan passes on to Isbeau her knowledge of witchcraft and magic, although witchcraft has been forbidden and the punishment for practicing it is death. While at one time witches had been respected, and even revered, now they are hunted down and murdered, as commanded by the king’s new foreign bride. And the king, who had once been a friend to the witches, appears to have been ensorcelled by his new wife, agreeing to her every whim.

But with the queen’s new edicts against all magic and magical creatures, there is unrest in the kingdom. The sea monsters have grown bold, with no sea witches to hold them back, and the forests are filled with bandits. The people are starting to notice that the king has become no more than the queen’s puppet and there are rumors of a possible rebellion, and of a mysterious man who has been rescuing witches from fires and helping the downtrodden.

In her secluded valley Isabeau is about to turn sixteen, which means that it is time for her to be tested for the Coven, although most of the Coven members are now dead. But as the examination is underway, Isabeau and Meghan’s home is suddenly attacked by the queen’s soldiers and Isabeau is forced to flee, in order to deliver an important package to safety. Having rarely ventured from her forest home, Isabeau is suddenly thrust out in to the world where she must rely on her wits and magical skills to guide her and keep her out of the hands of the witch hunter who are on her trail

This was the first time that I have read anything by Kate Forsyth, though I’ve been familiar with her name from seeing her books around. Although she does have some newer books out, I decided to start with the first book from her first series, mostly because I like stories about sheltered young women who are sent out into the world to defeat some evil force, usually with the use of magic. I suppose this is the female version of the classic “young farm-boy” theme, and I have enjoyed a number of other books with a similar story-line

Isabeau is young and inexperienced with the darker side of humanity, though her journey will serve to strip her of her previous naivety showing her the darkness that lurks behind many human facade. In sharp contrast to Isabeau’s guilesness personality are some other harder characters that are introduced into the story, and whom are connected to Isabeau in unexpected ways.

Unfortunately the book ended before I got the chance to discover how the characters were affected by their experiences, and I believe my enjoyment of the rest of the series will strongly depend on how the author proceeds with the character development. I would expect Isabeau’s character in particular to be more nuanced, though I hope to see some real growth in all the other characters as well, in the following book.

The Witches of Eileannen was a pretty good book which- for the most part- I enjoyed, though it did have its slow moments. While Isabeau starts off as the central characters, the focus of the story branches off to follow the progress of some of the other characters, and not all of these side stories interested me as much as Isabeau’s did. Though once the narration caught up with Isabeau again, my interest was rekindled.

I think this would be a good book for someone starting out in fantasy who doesn’t already have set expectations. The tone reminds me of a David Eddings or Terry Brooks novel, with the prose being more mild and the characters less complex than in the more recent fantasies. It’s a good book to start with before trying out some of the edgier and more complex recent fantasies. Though the vanilla tone of the prose can be misleading, as events do get surprisingly dark at some points, which I was really not expecting.

Had The Witches of Eileannen been a recent release I would have been really frustrated at the abrupt ending, and irritated at having to wait for the sequel. But one of the advantages of reading an older book is that the following books have already been written and are usually easily attainable. And so, I have already gotten a hold of the sequel, The Pool of Two Moons, and I look forward to getting started on it soon.


I see her name around all the time as well, and I've been meaning to check out something by her. I'll be interested to know, in the end, what you think of the series as it progresses.

It's a good thing I read your review before seeing the cover. I like the premise and I think I will give this one a chance.

Stephanie: I agree. This isn't a cover that would usually attract my attention. I look forward to hearing your opinion of the book, if you do end up reading it. If you like the theme I can suggest a couple of other books to you that you may like as well.

I have not heard of these books. I may have to look into them in the future. Thank you for mentioning them. Sometimes the old style fantasies are nice to revisit and read through. I hope you enjoy the rest of the series.

This wasn't a series I was familiar with before but after reading your review, I'm more than willing to give it a try.

The first book was fairly intriguing - but to be honest I could only recommend this series to maybe 11-16 yr old bracket - for them they will probably be a thoroughly enjoyable read. Perhaps I've become a little jaded - I've read a lot of fantasy for a very long time. I actually only got as far as the third book before I gave up, as it began to feel as if (like many other fantasy epics/series etc) it had become a standard fantasy series cash cow. My guess is it could easily have been condensed into a more coherent two books at most.

Quite frankly I began rather rapidly to feel sorry for the bad guys - they obviously don't have a chance, with the good guys (the social elite of course) positively bristling with powers, magic items and very powerful allies.

It doesn't really help that humans have invaded this realm and driven out in some cases the "bad guys". She does make some attempt to show at least some of the non-humans in a slightly sympathetic light, - but the human foes are decidedly two dimensional. It may be that by the end of the series the balance will be redressed against the "invaders" - but I suspect not, and even if so, most assuredly under human terms.

If you have the ability to "suspend disbelief" (a term most commonly used by OTT film directors to excuse poor plot/characterisation and generally silly stuff) you'll survive this. It has it's moments - but would have been way better just focusing on one or two of the ideas/characters - and a little less on the usual world shaking moves of the social elite. With movies I know when to suspend disbelief - if it has sfx then that moment comes as soon as I hear the first American voice (ok - a little harsh) - it's a little harder with books unfortunately, and rather annoying in terms of time spent on them - the first book in fantasy series is often the best (the hook?), and this is no exception.

I've gone on enough - and I regard this as just the tip of the iceberg. But maybe get it for your teenagers - I'm not being sarcastic, believe it or not, but a lack of critical faculties will make these books (from what I remember of my childhood) very enjoyable.

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