Character-driven witchcraft – Judy Goodwin’s “Heart of the Witch”

Description by the author / blurb:

Zerrick Dhur holds a dangerous secret. As the Pastor’s son, it is his duty to uphold Iahmel’s ways, the ways of the church. But he practices magic, feels it singing to him through the jungle outside the colonial town walls. As witch burning fever strikes his home town, Zerrick must decide whether to stay true to his father’s words, or follow the calling of his heart. In his journey, darkness and madness threaten. An untrained witch can lose his or her grip on reality. He meets several other lost souls in his search to tame the wild magic. A young woman with visions. An old native scout. A hidden city of magic users. As he draws nearer to the truth, he fears he will also have to face his greatest nightmare, the Ravenger, a demon of unspeakable power. In the end, Zerrick must decide whether witchcraft will lead him to goodness . . . or to evil.
heart of the witch


According to the old lore, the Creator was dual, the intimate union of Iahmel, the principle of reason, and Ainéra, the principle of intuition. But the religions in Argessa, the world Goodwin has spun, differ about why a crack broke into this unity and the two Gods were separated, weakening both their powers. The followers of Iahmel blame Ainéra. Worse still, from the crack a third god-entity was brought into existence, Angist, the perversion of the intentions of the original gods, the evil will spreading throughout the earth.
One religion has Ainéra retreated in shame, another has it she was expelled, but one way or the other, she became earth-bound and tried to help the creatures with magic. But Angist, roaming earth, perverted her work and thus for the followers of Iahmel Ainéra and Angist are likewise condemned and magic is inextricably wound up with evil.

Zerrick is born into a renowned family of the Iahmel religion. He has just one problem. He is a witch called by the magic.

This call ordains him to fight the force of evil. But before that, he will embark on a long journey and pass through many trials that will make him grow in his understanding and control of magic. Throughout he will be haunted by dreams, calling him onwards, dreams of a woman by a deserted mountain, pleading for his help. This woman, is it Ainéra, who legend claims to have been defeated by Angist, now languishing for rescue? Or isn’t it rather a trick of the evil one, luring him into a trap?

The many perils, battles, and other sorts of climaxes Goodwin sends Zerrick riding through are kept together by the suspense arc of his calling and the legendary mysteries behind that calling. In that way, with its many different tales of plight, the novel stays perfectly rounded off, and indeed rounded off in cosmic shape, as the encompassing story arc reaches back to the beginning of creation and up into the Heavens themselves.
This really is loveable about the novel: that Goodwin can guide the reader from one exciting moment to the next, but still keep present the overall direction of the story. The book is replete with a myriad of small climaxes, but all these peaks don’t distort the story into a ragged shape, because the great mountain with the enigmatic woman still looms on higher, orienting the characters towards it.

And the principal characters are Zerrick and Mira, a young woman equally accused of witchcraft he teams up with along his way. The novel is called “Heart of the Witch” for a reason; it sheds light on the heart of Zerrick, his doubts about magic, his efforts to do what is right and to control the wild parts of power in him. But it also, and more importantly, explores the progression of a love relationship, of its hopes, its pains and its hesitations. For the most part, the way Mira and Zerrick interact turns out to be very mature, despite their young age. With that, Goodwin evades a common problem of stories featuring teen characters, who are often overdrawn in their reactions, such as no ordinary teen would feel. Like that, everyone can get in touch with Zerrick’s and Mira’s experiences, whatever their age.
When the author relates conversations, she goes far beyond the simple aligning of dialogue phrases, instead, she lets the reader partake in the oblique reactions and silent thoughts of the protagonists, thus deepening the understanding of what is said by what is left unsaid. Such snapshots in-between the dialogue lines greatly increase character depth and reveal the author as an astute observer of the changing interactions of her characters. With unpretending psychological finery Goodwin draws out small movements of the soul. “Zerrick flinched, remembering her [Mira’s] situation. He kept … sneaking glances at her without letting their gazes touch.” “She took a shuddering breath, her hands clenched in front of her.” And, quite exemplary for what I mean to give distinction to: “She answered his unasked question.”
It is just delightful to read a fantasy novel about real people who are having real conversations and are not just “saying” redundant lines and “answering” to them and stating nothing else than the obvious, just commenting on the thrills around them. Goodwin has written a story full of thrills, but with the added electrifying thrill of characters the reader gets to know so well he really cares about them.
However, it is my single one grievance about the novel that the author does not always stay true to this delicacy of observation which takes her characters serious as people with emotions, whatever their age, and does not load them with age-group clichés. There is this one scene that is particularly annoying, when Zerrick and Mira, washing themselves in a river, start gaily splashing water at each other, and, of course, by force of cliché, end up wildly fumbling at each other. But else Goodwin won’t be trapped by this mirage of the teen happily agonising under hormone attacks, and reinstates her protagonists into their emotional and reflective authenticity in their following interactions.

I greatly admire the detailed editing work the author must have put into her novel. Not one time do the topics and happenings that spring forth during Zerrick’s journey veer from story coherence; to the contrary, the importance of minor incidents is reinforced by their later reappearance, and what was vital to the characters in the beginning rests integral to their personality up until the end.
For instance, when Zerrick’s curate father was reciting the creation tale, he had a far better listener in Zerrick than in me. I shunned my mind against this whole troublesome business of the two gods, just letting it pass by and hardly recalling anything of it, once the page turned. It’s just that I got burnt a lot as far as indie-published fantasy novels are concerned. Many a time the author extols details of history about his world, the more ancient and the more epic the better, but these details play no role whatsoever in further proceedings and are just the vain attempt of the author to lend epic weight to the world he has made up. But with my mental blockade I did great injustice to Goodwin, because, as explained above, it are the further clarifications on the legends about Argessa that pull the story together towards its final, cosmic destination. Every sentence the curate uttered proved a nutshell of excitement that was broken up and brought into effect further along Zerrick’s journey.
Another example: Deep in the jungle, Zerrick is shortly threatened by a speaking wolf, who duly informs the reader that he is “called by the locals Ashwa-grippa, the ‘death-of-two-evils’”. He disappears from the picture as quickly as he entered it. I smiled to myself, with the bitter smile of the burnt child; and I thought to myself: “Goodbye now, hash-grabber or whatever you are called; won’t see you again” – too often had I had fantasy authors pompously introduce strange creatures, and throwing their even stranger names at me, in the illusionary attempt to charge their work with the feel of fantasy-strangeness; abandoning their creatures to complete oblivion after the first introduction. But indeed, far on in the book, the Ashwa-grippa reappears, and then in a whole horde attacking.
And still an example: in the beginning, and through his first dealings with Mira, Zerrick is forced to come to terms with the troubled relationship to his family, and particularly his father. It was an issue evidently so important to him one might be surprised his thoughts do not recur to it at later times. But indeed, in his final battle, one of the temptations he has to face will be an image of his father.

Many more examples could be given that Goodwin has her network of agents, events and history solidly intertwined, so solidly that the action can bounce and role on it without breaking holes of implausibility into the story. There are, of course, characters limited to specific steps in Zerrick’s quest, and he won’t see them again. But they are always described with just as much detail as is adequate to the importance they carry in the storyline, and if they don’t show up later in person, they still remain present in the heart of the witch, as part of the experience that survives in the shape of Zerrick’s further development.

Proof of the mindful editing is also rendered by Goodwin’s masterful use of language. Her novel is, quite simply, a piece of fantasy extremely well written. One can randomly open a page of her book and be charmed by a whole array of beautifully wrought sentences. I also find it positively surprising that Goodwin, besides her descriptive skill, does not engross on her descriptions. A long time I held a grudge even against J.R.R. Tolkien for dwelling lavishly on the colour of what seemed every speck of turf on every mountain his ‘Fellowship of the Ring’ struggled over. When Goodwin goes into descriptions, she does it just with the same delicateness she lets the reader get into the characters’ feelings. She is exhaustive, but she is not verbose. Often her protagonists’ silences are far more telling than any kind of heart-on-the-sleeve loquaciousness could be. In just the same way, Goodwin paints her world just enough for the reader to see it, with few poignant strokes, but strokes so very suggestive that they evoke and hold panoramic visions. “Cool morning mist hugged the land, an eerie fog trapped beneath the canopy which shifted and swirled in the mountain breezes, giving rise to wraith-like shapes that danced and merged with darker shapes of foliage.”
The few typos I discovered along the reading do not invalidate the general estimation of the superb editing.

All in all the mixture of descriptions, character development and action is churned into sound balance. When there is excitement, it is never mindless, and when there is psychological insight, or depiction of the fantasy world, it never slurs the pace, it never is laborious and heavy, but always is drawn on by the rhythm of the next anticipated action scene. This minute balance bespeaks a rare talent for the composition of a story by its different driving forces.

The “Heart of the Witch” brings Zerrick’s quest to a close, yet not all the mythological riddles will be resolved. When, at the very end, the reader is surprised by the mischievous smile of a Goddess, he can turn the last page of this blast of a fantasy novel with the encouraging promise that Goodwin hasn’t had her last say on the history of Argessa yet.

Rating: 5 of 5 stars

Link to Amazon USA (paperback, Kindle also available)
Link to Smashwords
Link to Amazon Germany