Heart of the Witch by Judy Goodwin

Heart of the Witch by Judy Goodwin While the underlying plot of a young magic user having to flee an oppressive religion and find his place in the world is common in fantasy, Goodwin adds freshness by setting it in a world of colonial oppressors and black-powder weapons rather than a pseudo-European Middle Ages.

Zerrick Dhur is trapped between two drives: as the son of the pastor, he is expected to be an example of proper behaviour; as a curious teenager, he wants to learn all the magic his mentor can teach him. But, studying magic is not just inappropriate it is sinful, forcing him to learn in secret. When his mentor is arrested for witchcraft, Zerrick is forced to exchange his comfortable life for one of running from both the righteous and the criminals who lurk in the jungle.

Goodwin’s world-building is solid. Both the colonials and the natives have a distinct society but are composed of disparate groups, creating an immediate feeling of realism.

The revelation of both magic and the more unusual flora and fauna is well-paced, allowing the reader to share Zerrick’s learning experience without having to experience long periods where little develops. Both the risks of magic and its source are plausible, creating a balance between solving problems and causing them.

The religions are similarly skilfully crafted, offering both benefits and disadvantages to followers. And – unlike some fantasy novels – there is no hierarchy of worth; no one religion overcomes the others, or is ethically superior.

The dénouement, when it arrives, is both satisfying and consistent with the rest of the book.

Goodwin’s characterisation is as sound as her world-building. Zerrick’s combination of self-doubt and arrogance is a very realistic response to the stresses he faces. He also develops plausible phobias and drives from the events he faces.

The other characters are similarly rounded, with even minor characters having a distinct personality.

Goodwin also balances the power of the main characters with their involvement in the wider world. While the key actions are taken by the protagonists, many of the actions necessary to get them there require the involvement of other characters. This provides a sense that the supporting characters are the heroes of their own narratives.

However, the romance plot might be annoying to some readers. The early confirmation to the reader that the characters each care for the other, followed by their misunderstandings and conflicts for many chapters can become wearing for those who do not share the characters teenage social skills.

The book contains a few character sketches, which – while they do not detract from the work – do not add significantly to the impression of the characters.

Overall I enjoyed this story greatly. I recommend it to readers seeking an accessible but complex single-volume fantasy novel.

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