Den Patrick kicks off his new Ashen Empire series with Witchsign. The zealous Vigilants of the Solmindre Empire seek out anyone carrying the arcane taint of the long-dead dragons, said to be bearing Witchsign. Kjellrunn knows she has magical gifts and expects to be seized, but come her town’s invigilation, her brother is taken by mistake. Kjellrunn is by no means safe. Her powers are manifesting and there is widespread suspicion of her witchcraft. Meanwhile her elder brother Steiner must survive whatever ordeals the Vigilants have in store for him on their island base.
It’s an entertaining enough archetypal fantasy romp but one that doesn’t ascend beyond its generic premise.
Den Patrick’s prose style is functional – for the most part – and there’s a pleasing attention to weighting the split narrative. Most of the plot revolves around Steiner, to whom the majority of chapters are dedicated. Our other deuteragonist Kjellrunn has a small role by comparison, but if Patrick had lavished more space on her admittedly slimmer plotline, I’d be complaining that pages were wasted on severely more anaemic material. As it is, the focus gravitates to the meatier plot and Kjellrunn’s story offers good reprieves from the pacing of Steiner’s.
There are elements that do lack polish though. Characters uniformly voice their thoughts out loud. No one has an inner voice. The novel is apparently set in a world where everyone feels compelled to vocalise their inner workings. Patrick also has a bad habit of inserting clichés to cap his dialogue. Humdrum quips like ‘That makes two of us’ and ‘[character’s name] sends his regards’ sadly reared their heads. Worse, these insertions are entirely redundant, always appearing at the end of exchanges that have naturally terminated. I was also slightly perplexed when several antagonists divulge a lot of information to Steiner’s incessant questioning. It undercuts the implicit threat somewhat when the enemies take on the spirit of a helpful tour guide.
In a genre glutted with archetypes, Witchsign struggles to stand out. Think of how many stories of dragons, magical academies, and ersatz-elves you can turn to in the fantasy section of a bookstore. Is a story in which some plucky teenagers take on a mighty empire with a mixture of magic and rebellious spirit offering anything distinct? I don’t think anyone who reads Witchsign will dislike it. My quibbles above are pretty minor. The problem is whether after finishing Witchsign, the reader will remember it. And I am not sure they will…