Apr 20, 2008

Witch Ember by John Lawson (and Weekly Geeks)

Witch Ember opens with a story from when the world was young. Trickster Man stole a Stone of Power, and he ground it and baked it into bread for his friend First Ancestor. Later on, First Ancestor was chopped up, and the first humans were made from his pieces. Because he had eaten the bread, every human has a piece of the Stone of Power inside them. Some pieces, however, are larger than others.

Witch Ember is the story of a girl named Esmeree. Esmeree is an orphan, and from a very young age she has to resort to thievery and prostitution to make a living. It’s also at a very young age that she realizes that she’s in permanent danger. She has a large ember in her chest, a fragment of the Stone of Power, and according to the doctrine of the Medianist Church, women are not supposed to hold this power. Her ember means that she will potentially become a very powerful sorceress, and such people are often burned alive by the Inquisition, or put to even more sinister uses.

After making a living on the streets for a number of years, she becomes a Sellaria, a high courtesan, and this allows her to cross paths with a number of influential people. It is in the sequence of this that her considerable powers begin to be used by others to betray her fellow witches and wizards. But as Esmeree grows up, she begins to realize that she’d rather use her powers to fight intolerance, injustice and hypocrisy, and to spare others the kind of childhood she was forced to have.

The world John Lawson created in Witch Ember is a very rich and detailed one. It’s also a very dark one. Cliffs Reach, the place where Esmeree grows up, is a very rough city. It is a city controlled by the Medianist Church – a supposedly pious place where heresy of any kind is crushed, where witches, wizards and foreigners are burned alive or crucified, and yet a place where child prostitution is tolerated, or at the very least ignored. One of the things Esmeree learns as she grows up is to separate her own personal faith from the injustices that are committed by men in the name of God.

This world is also populated by a number of fascinating and original fantastic creatures, and by complex and nuanced characters whose actions and motivations surprise you even when you think you have them all figured out. These are also characters you care about – Esmeree, for example, remains likeable all through the story, even if some of her actions make you raise your eyebrow. Even when you don’t think she’s making the right choice, you understand her, you feel along with her.

Witch Ember is a very gripping story, full of twists and turns and emotionally charged scenes. The book is quite a long one, and yet I never lost interest in the story. On the contrary, I became more and more engrossed in it as it advanced. One of the reasons for this was the fact that the tone of the book changes as Esmeree grows older and becomes more and more aware of the complexities of the world that surrounds her, of the daily acts of cruelty she witnesses. At the same time, she becomes more and more determined to do what she can to change things.

In many ways, Witch Ember is a coming of age story. A great deal of it is about Esmeree figuring out what kind of person she wants to be. It’s a story with an epic feel that manages to remain very personal at the same time. And on top of that, it’s expertly written. John Lawson knows when to be subtle – his tone is always tasteful, even when what’s being described, or hinted at, is very disturbing.

I’m afraid I do have a minor quibble with the book, though. John Lawson created a language (or rather, several languages) for the inhabitants of the world he created, and all through the book there are strange words here and there. There’s a glossary at the end where you can check the “translation”, but I found that having to constantly turn the pages to check the glossary was pulling me out of the story. What I did after a while was stop consulting the glossary. I just figured out what the words meant from the context, and, as most of them were recurrent, halfway through the book they became familiar. Still, I’d have preferred the meanings to have been given in footnotes rather than in a glossary.

This really is a minor quibble, and it didn’t keep me from really enjoying this book. If you’re a fan of fantasy (particularly dark fantasy), of stories about strong women, or of good storytelling in general, I think you will enjoy it too.

You can find out more about Witch Ember and John Lawson here. He’s a great author and he deserves to be more well-known. Also, you can read Chris’ great review of this book here.

Have you all checked out Dewey's great new idea? It's called Weekly Geeks, and it's a challenge - not a reading challenge, but a blogging one. There will be different themes each week, and signing up does not mean that you have to participate every week. For more details, go here. It sounds like fun, doesn't it?


  1. I haven't read this one but your review makes me wonder - what does the author have against the Methodist Church?

    Dewey's idea sounds intriguing but I'm going to need to think about it.


  2. CJ: Ooops! Absolutely nothing! Thank you for alerting me for a very serious typo (I think it was auto-corrected by my stupid word processor). It's Medianist, not Methodist. It's a fictional religion and it bears no relation to Methodism whatsoever. The book is not critical of religion in any way, quite the contrary - it's just critical of the intolerance that sometimes disguises itself as faith. Anyway, I corrected the typo now, and let's pretend it never happened :P

  3. This does sound good, Nymeth. The title alone was enough to draw me to look closer at the book, but your review has me wishing I could go out and buy it right now.

  4. I saw Trickster in the first paragraph and thought--oooooh, this is what I was looking for! But, maybe not quite was I was looking for...it does sound captivating, though!

    I had some of the same thoughts about Hulme's The Bone People and her glossary--especially since many of the Maori words are NOT in the glossary. If it hadn't been for a paper on language in the novel, I probably would have skipped it as well--but it did break up the story (or pull me out of it).

  5. Thanks for the great review, Nymeth! I'm definitely adding this one to my wishlist. The cover looks intriguing to me too! ;)

  6. You wrote such a great review of this book Nymeth! I really enjoyed it and now that I'm reading it's sequel I'm realizing that I enjoyed it even more than I originally thought if that makes sense. It feels good to be back in his worlds. I think you'll like The Raven quite a bit if you decide to read it. It's longer than Witch Ember and has a whole set of new vocabulary, but I'm really liking Guiromelan's character even though I wasn't crazy about him in Witch Ember. He does a great job of exploring him in this book and some of the dynamics in this book are just top notch...love the different races of people and creatures. Same as Witch Ember, he deals with this type of stuff very well. The vocabulary/glossary thing kind of bugged me as well, but like you, I stopped referring to the glossary unless I absolutely couldn't get the hang of what a word meant and I thought it was really important. But that was a minor quibble.

  7. LOL, those stinky Methodists...

    Thank you for the review, Nymeth! I'm really happy you enjoyed it.

    And I think your approach towards the foreign languages was the correct one. Most of the meanings can be gleaned through context. The glossary is really there for people who need the extra help (or who just like reading glossaries).

    Thanks again!
    John Lawson

  8. This sounds like a really great book, and I need something different for the Once Upon a time challenge. Thanks for recommending it!

  9. After reading your review and Chris' review I have gone ahead and ordered it. Sounds very good, and different from most of what is out there.

  10. Literary Feline: I hope you enjoy it when you get to it :)

    Trish: Not quite what you were looking for, no, but it's a great book! I haven't read The Bone People, but I had the same issue with Kiss of the Fur Queen by Tomson Highway (a Canadian Native author). Except it was worse there, because it was whole sentences rather than single words. You could not afford not to look in the glossary, and it was very distracting.

    Melody, I hope you enjoy it!

    Chris: That does make sense. It has happened to me with a few books, and I always love it when it does. I do want to read The Raven, and I can't wait to read your review!

    John Lawson: Again, I'm really sorry about that :P Once I stopped referring to the glossary the language ceased to be an issue, and I could appreciate what it added to the story. And even that initial awkwardness the reader may feel, well, it mirrors the way the characters in the story feel when dealing with unfamiliar languages and cultures.

    Kim: You're welcome :)

    J Scott Savage: I hope you enjoy it as much as Chris and I did.

  11. I've ordered it from the states, I can't wait to get it.
    It sounds so good. I love stories of strong women, I love fantasy and witches and gripping stories so it seems just like the perfect book for me:)

  12. I was really intrigued when I first read Chris's review, and I'm even more intrigued now. It is so cool how you can read reviews by different people of the same book and continue to pick up more and different viewpoints. Even if two people like the book, you still get to see new layers. Of course, both you and Chris write such wonderful reviews anyway, I find myself adding nearly everything you read to my wish lists :)

    I've been in such a reading slump lately that a long book probably isn't what the doctor ordered, but slumps end...and it would be nice to have this sitting in my pile when it does ;)

  13. This does sound pretty awesome. I read Chris' review which got me interested and this made me more interested thanks!

  14. I'm really intrigued! Sounds great! I'll have to read this soon.

  15. Valentina: yay, I'm glad you'll be reading it too. Can't wait to see what you think!

    Debi: It's funny how that happens, isn't it? I guess it's because we put so much of ourselves in how we read things...which is one of the reasons why I feel that I've come to know you all from reading your musings about books. Long books are normally not good after reading slumps for me either...but I hope you enjoy this one when the right time for it comes!

    Rhinoa: I really think this is your kind of book!

    Nicola: I hope you enjoy it :)

  16. My goodness, you're making me add to my (theoretical) wishlist with your every post! Hahaha! Sounds like a very engaging read.

  17. I REALLY love this book and this is why - "I became more and more engrossed in it as it advanced. One of the reasons for this was the fact that the tone of the book changes as Esmeree grows older and becomes more and more aware of the complexities of the world that surrounds her, of the daily acts of cruelty she witnesses. At the same time, she becomes more and more determined to do what she can to change things." A perfect summation!

  18. Well, that helps a great deal. Thanks for correcting it and for pointing the mistake out. Now I can add it to my TBR pile without hesitation.

    That and the fact that the author was kind enough to stop by and comment. Gotta support those who do that.


  19. Oooh, Nymeth! (Picture Daffy Duck jumping up and down angrily here). You got me again! I've added to the loooooong list. :-D
    Great review.

  20. Lightheaded: You do the same to me, so there :P This one really was a great read!

    Ken: yay, I'm happy to find another fan of this book!

    CJ: Sorry again for the misunderstanding. I hope you enjoy this one when you get to it!

    Darla: See what I told Lightheaded :P It's payback, mwahahaha :P


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