Witherward follows Ilsa, a young woman with a tragic past who is working as a magician’s assistant in London. Her big secret? Ilsa can actually do real magic.
After growing up in an orphanage where she was treated as a monster, where her abilities to change her appearance and turn into animals had her labelled as a demon child, Ilsa escaped, growing up on the streets and picking pockets until she attracted the attention of a magician who recognised that she had real magical abilities. Now a young woman, she’s settled into a life working on the stage, hiding her true abilities, all whilst searching for others who are like her. However, when strange figures start stalking her she begins to suspect that there may be something else going on.
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When she and her friend are attacked, and her friend is killed, Ilsa is rescued by a mysterious man with powers of his own, who whisks her away to the Witherward, another version of London similar to her own, but where the city has been divided up by different magical factions, all of whom exist in tenuous peace. Here Ilsa learns that not only is she a Changeling, a person with shape-shifting abilities, but that she’s part of the most powerful Changeling family, one who is on the brink of war with the other factions. Thrown into a world she barely understands, Ilsa is forced to use every trick she’s learnt on the streets and on the stage just to stay alive.
Whilst it follows some very familar paces from the Urban Fantasy genre – a young woman learning about a secret world of magic, finding out that she’s special in some way, and falling for a dark and brooding guy – Witherward does things very differently, and quickly stands out as special because of this. The first major departure is that instead of being a modern story it’s set during the Victorian era (though I’m not sure that’s the right word for the Witherward itself as there’s no indication they have a Queen Victoria). I’m a sucker for this time period, and any story that uses Victorian London as a big part of its setting is always going to win me over quickly, but Witherward did it so well, starting readers in a version of London that’s familiar, before moving in to somewhere new and fantastical.
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Another great thing the book does is instead of revealing a secret world hidden away from regular people it just takes Ilsa and plants her in another version of London, a connected parallel world where there are some surface similarities, but so many things are altered. The first thing that we notice is that when it’s day in London it’s night in the Witherward, and that the seasons are flipped, with the cold London winter being left behind for the war summer of this other world. This immediately sets the two locations apart before we even learn any details, and puts Ilsa on the back-foot straight away, forcing a confident character into realising she’s not in a situation she ever faced before. It also makes it easier for things to be really, really different, and not having to juggle issues like staying hidden from ‘regular’ human beings. Instead the Witherward can be bold and in-your-face with the things that make it magical and wonderful.
Whilst the world of Witherward is an exciting new place, the characters that fill it make for an interesting bunch. The changeling faction are the people we spend the most time with, and the inner circle are a varied group to be sure. There’s Hester, Ilsa’s cousin who’s been running the faction but has since been seriously injured; Fyfe, the young inventor; Cassia, the young sorcerer; and Aelius, the crafty spymaster, to name just a few. Suddenly Ilsa finds herself in the middle of what could be considered a crime family, surrounded by these characters where she doesn’t know who to trust. You really feel for her as this fish-out-of-water character who’s been dropped into the middle of an impossible situation.
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Despite this Ilsa proves to be an incredibly strong lead character, and is one of the more believable and likeable young women protagonists I’ve read. So often there are leads who have no experience but suddenly find they’re amazing fighters, or they’re shrinking violets who’re always needing others to save them. Ilsa is a young woman who’s always had to fight for herself, whose wits and skills have kept her alive, and who you truly believe is a strong and capable person, able to do what she does in this book. It’s a genuine joy to read a lead character who feels so real, so strong, and so well earned.
This marks the first book in a series, and sets up for an incredibly interesting and detailed world, one that readers have barely begun to discover even after spending 400 pages in it. Whatever happens next in this universe, whatever Hannah Mathewson chooses to do with these characters, it’s sure to be as imaginative and original as this book.
Witherward is out on 16th February from Titan Books.