Witchsign – Den Patrick

There are certain things you should expect from a Den Patrick book: principled, if hot-headed, young men taking up arms against tyranny and oppression, brilliantly written sibling relationships, and a load of brilliant adventurous fun.  Witchsign (Harper Voyager) has all of these in spades.  The elevator pitch for this book is simple: what if Harry Potter went to evil Hogwarts, but it turned out they’d made a mistake and he was a Muggle?

Steiner and his sister Kjellrunn are teenagers living in a small town called Cinderfell, which is pretty much at the end of the world.  Their father is a blacksmith, and their mother left many years before.  They aren’t well off, and spend a lot of their time scraping to make ends meet.  But their lives are disrupted when the mysterious masked Vigilants from the neighbouring and conquering Solmindre Empire arrive.  Each year Vigilants come to test young people for Witchsign.  Those with it are taken away on board ship and never heard of again.  Steiner is found to have Witchsign, and is taken away.  But it’s a mix up – he was protecting Kjellrunn, who it turns out has blossoming magical powers.  Steiner is taken away, but not to his death as he feared – instead he finds that children with Witchsign are taken by the Vigilants to a mysterious island housing a a magical school.  Kjellrunn and her father are left behind to cope with the fear and stigma of Witchsign having been discovered in their family.

One of the things I love about Den’s writing is that his protagonists aren’t your traditional royal heirs with magic powers/weapons/special destinies.  Steiner is an ordinary young man who sees that something is wrong and decides to do something about it.  He protects the weak and the vulnerable, stands up to bullies, and encourages people to work together to overcome obstacles.  Although hot-headed and rash at times, it’s because he cares about the wrongs he sees in the world around him, and wants to do something about it.  And his relationship with Kjellrunn is beautifully drawn.  He is a fiercely protective older brother, who nonetheless will bicker with his sister over trivia.

Above all, Witchsign is a thrilling adventure story full of escapades, heroics, adventure, magic and dragons.  It sets the scene perfectly for the second book in the series, as Steiner and his friends set out to overthrow the Solmindre Empire because of the suffering it has caused.  But it’s written with contemporary sensibilities about corrupt governments, the abuse of power and bigotry.

And Kjellrunn’s reaction to being told to smile once too often by a foreign soldier?  That had me punching the air in delight.

Goodreads rating: 4*

The Boy With The Porcelain Blade and The Boy Who Wept Blood – Den Patrick

Den Patrick is doing some really interesting things right now.  And I’m not just saying that because I know him in real life*, though that does help.

His Erebus Sequence (the first two novels The Boy With The Porcelain Blade and The Boy Who Wept Blood are both out, and the third novel is forthcoming) provide a very counter-cultural slant on epic fantasy.  Unashamedly socialist, they provide a commentary on both the lazy assumptions of genre, and contemporary society’s attitudes towards poverty.

Most epic fantasy is ultimately about preserving the status quo. The Big Bad poses a threat to the natural order of things and our plucky hero(es) defend or reinstate that comforting, natural order. Everyone knows their place and is content with it.  It’s Downton Abbey but with magic. Peasants are rosy-cheeked, happy, healthy and always have enough to eat, and hereditary rulers are usually benevolent. Not so in Patrick’s Landfall – there is corruption at the heart of the state and it is challenged and uncovered by Patrick’s Orfano protagonists.

That message that power corrupts, dehumanises and desensitises is at the heart of these books.  Even those with the very best of intentions become corrupted by power.  Patrick uses a couple of powerful metaphors to illustrate this.  Firstly, and most obviously, the Orfano themselves are the product of experimentation by a corrupt ruler, and show the effects of that in physical deformities.  That physical corruption manifests to a much greater degree in Erebus himself, when we find out who he is in the second novel.  Secondly, the second novel features a ‘tinctura’ available only to those in power.  It  prolongs life and health, but removes empathy and connection to others.  

Demesne may be on the road to becoming a republic, but that journey is as tough as you would expect.  The interests of inherited wealth and power are entrenched and there is significant resistance to even a stronger constitutional monarchy, let alone the transition to democracy.  There are shades of the Russian revolution.

There’s a wonderful authenticity to these books.  In the first, the main character Lucien is utterly convincing as an angry and hormonal teenage boy. He is immature, inexperienced, often awkward and he makes mistakes.  In the second, Dino takes over as main character.  He is forced by circumstance into spying and assassination, but rather than being romanticised as an exciting and daring profession, Dino is left feeling grubby and the impact of this work on his personal trust is set out in detail.

Patrick also has some interesting things to say about diversity within fiction.  There are strict gender roles within Landfall, and one of his main female characters, Anea, literally has no voice.  Dino, the protagonist of the second novel, is gay and struggles to come to terms with his sexuality in a society that sees homosexuality as shameful and unnatural.  LGBT people exist, but they are forced into the shadows for fear of being cast out of society.

Patrick is clearly growing in confidence as a writer (the second novel is much more polished than the first) and is producing highly fresh and interesting work.  He’s very definitely a cut above some of the other work out there at the moment and I’m looking forward to the third novel in the series.  .

* I was at WorldCon in London in August 2014 when Den came up to me and said, “Hello, we were at school together.” I replied “I bought your book yesterday!” Apparently we’ve both been at lots of the same genre events in London and he’d seen me around, but in my usual self-absorbed way I’d completely failed to recognise him or realise who he was.  Small world, indeed!