The Witchstone by Victoria Graham
4.0/5 Average | 6 ratings
[Heavy Spoilers Ahead]
[NOTE: The author has recently revised this book and republished it as an ebook. This review is for the original from 1974. As it differs from the ebook (though to what extent I’m not sure), please take this review with a grain of salt.]
I go into most books with assumptions, but I went into The Witchstone with assumptions. Based on the copy on the novel, I had expectations of not just the plot, but the entire story structure. This is, obviously, a recipe for disaster but, in my defense, these assumptions came straight from the copy:
In a netherworld of grotesque spells and sensuous pleasures, she had reigned supreme for five hundred years!
To exquisite Lady Sibele, the stone meant eternal youth and beauty. With its terrible magic powers, she need never fear death.
To the wizard Fenrulf, the stone meant dark revenge in the frightful fulfillment of his life’s obsessive goal of destruction.
To Rothric, the king, the stone meant unending power for evil—and Lady Sibele for his captive queen.
Lured on by their passion for the hell-born stone, they invaded a sybaritic and savage underworld and at last descended into the fearful place of the frozen damned...
The Witchstone is a new kind of fantasy love story—sensuous, sophisticated, and utterly spell-binding!
Based on the above, I thought The Witchstone would twist the classic quest story by following three twisted villains as they compete for the same evil prize. I thought this questing would be somewhat straightforward—for example, they might be dropped into a labyrinth, or tasked with descending the levels of hell, or told a certain number of trials stood between them and their goal. They might go it alone or perhaps they would all join up—enemies with a common goal and an uneasy alliance until the witchstone was within their grasp. Regardless of what sort of quest they were subjected to, I thought there would be one woman—the woman who had reigned supreme for 500 years—who oversaw their progress, held the witchstone, and tried to thwart them as they crept ever closer.
I assumed far, far too much. Despite that, the initial introduction to our protagonists is really good. Sibele is a girl born to a poor family. She’s beautiful and headstrong, but in her day and age her beauty is all that matters. Her mother stresses the importance of her good looks as she plans to marry Sibele off to a noble.
We then get to see Sibele, some 500 years later. See, Sibele is actually the woman who has reigned supreme for 500 years. Except she doesn’t reside in a netherworld, and there are no sensuous pleasures. She lives in isolation outside of town in an old castle and uses the witchstone to steal the life and youth of young women who stray too close. She seems miserable and terrified, unfulfilled by her unnatural life but also unwilling to give it up.
Even though this was not the story I expected, I was into it. Sibele’s pale life had honesty, and—though she was clearly a villain herself—I worried about her when she ran afoul the true villain of the story.
Interspersed with Sibele’s story is Fenrulf’s. Growing up an orphan in a hostile city, self-preservation hardens into selfishness. And when the city turns on him, and he has to flee for his life, he clings to the only idea of any solace: revenge.
With black magic as the most straight-forward path, he studies, builds a small fortress in the mountains, assembles or magicks into existence golems and helpers. Though he shows none of the vulnerability of Sibele, Victoria Graham does a great job of tempering his villainous role, as well. Most importantly, he rescues Orog.
Orog hails from the same city Fenrulf escaped from. Worse, he has physical disabilities that make him the target of the worst of the city. When his life is in danger, Fenrulf appears and rescues him. Orog, an unwavering loyal sort, goes on to do everything in his power to help Fenrulf. And one of the things Fenrulf needs help with is finding and stealing the final ingredient in his doomsday spell—the witchstone.
The theft goes wrong, though, and villain number three (the true villain of the story, Rothric) intercepts the witchstone. Under duress, Sibele joins forces with Fenrulf as they chase Rothric.
This is roughly where things start to go dicey. Bad back copy is undoubtedly a culprit—it’s hard to be hyped up for one thing only to get a different thing. Unfortunately, though, I think it’s more than that. Graham seems to shine at slow, methodical characterization and setting a scene. At this point the novel kicks over to non-stop questing.
Rothric travels through all sorts of unlikely places, such as an underground kingdom of jewels and the already mentioned place of the frozen damned. Sibele and Fenrulf—with faithful Orog—chase him. These encounters lack weight, though. At any point, Graham could have reordered the encounters, or replaced them entirely with a different sort of pit-stop, and it wouldn’t have affected the trajectory of the book. The only thing they truly accomplish is giving Sibele and Fenrulf time to become close(r)—see, at the tail end of the back copy it mentions that this book is a love story, and that’s the one part of the back copy that’s accurate.
Throughout these quests (which I found lacking from a story-telling perspective), the writing quality also takes a hit. Filtering is everywhere. Nothing is seen or experienced without us being told that Sibele looked and saw, or Fenrulf reached out and grabbed. Worse than that, though, is the pervasive use of the verb ‘was’ paired with repeating the same visual descriptions. Take, for example, this double whammy:
“A pale white line was growing. The light grew and spread across the sky until it was filled with a milky whiteness. Before them in the west the sea was still shrouded in obscurity.”
I winced and mentally reworded that passage to:
“A pale white line spread across the sky, filling it with milky whiteness. To the west obscurity still shrouded the sea.”
“The walls rose higher on either side until the sunlight was blotted out.”
That baby I changed to:
“The walls rose higher on either side until they blotted out the sun.”
I know my re-writes aren’t perfect. I would argue, though, that they up the immediacy of those sentences. These issues, more than anything, are what slowed my reading of The Witchstone.
I was slightly intrigued by Sibele and Fenrulf ending up together because I’m a complete freaking sucker. But ... okay, there’s Orog, right? He’s essentially Fenrulf’s only friend. And Fenrulf isn’t a great friend, but at one point, Orog is in mortal danger and without a second thought Fenrulf throws himself into the same danger to rescue him. After recovering Orog, he’s openly emotional. He clearly loves Orog.
I really, really hoped that this would be Fenrulf’s turning moment. That, forced to face the fact that he’d rather die than not try to rescue Orog, he’d also face the fact that he’s not the villain he views himself as. I would have yelled out loud had platonic love saved this man.
But of coure not. Orog is saved, and onward they go.
As Sibele and Fenrulf continue to grow close, they eventually confide in each other, face the evils of their past, and fall in love. If at this moment Graham had had her no-longer-villainous protagonists renounce their pasts and their vile plans for the future, forget Rothric and the stone, and with trepidation being to life a now normal life, I’d have been down.
Instead, Rothric essentially kidnaps Sibele.
When Fenrulf realizes she’s missing, he doesn’t worry about her safety. No, he decides that she had been using him all along and bailed on him to join up with Rothric and go back to her old ways of preying on the vitality of young women.
His re-descent into his old ways happened so quickly I barely had time to process it before he was finalizing his doom spell and laughing coldly as he imagined Sibele’s face when all hell rained down on the city.
Which means that, in the last 40ish pages, Fenrulf needs to have another redemption arc. At this point in the story I was severely lacking in goodwill towards Fenrulf. It doesn’t help that he doesn’t come to this redemption arc on his own. No, he beats the horse, is cruel to everyone he passes, he even interacts with an obviously-acting-weird Sibele and peaces the fuck out without second thought. It’s not until Orog—abandoned by Fenrulf—appears at Fenrulf’s fortress and tells him that Sibele’s been bewitched that Fenrulf comes to his senses.
In the end he proves the truth of his (second) salvation by sacrificing himself. I might be jaded (because dear cod, the last couple years have done a number on me), but grandiose gestures, even the self-sacrificing kind, don’t smack of true change to me. Honestly, I feel like that sort of gesture might be more common than a Fenrulf-y sort of guy just taking a moment from feeling sorry for himself to think realistically about other people and try to grow on his own.
And then there’s the afterword which involves some sort of weird timeline twist where Fenrulf and Sibele are kids and they run into each other on Fenrulf’s flight from the city and they run away together and presumably never turn evil. I kind of sort of really like it (I told you I was a sucker), but also feel like it’s a case of trying to have your cake and eat it too.
I dunno, man. I thought the first so-many pages were incredibly good ... and then it remained lukewarm at best for the rest of the novel. If you know of any Victoria Graham novels that remain like the first third of this story, could you hit me up in the comments?
Cover art by Pepper? If I can read the signature right, anyway. That’s all I can find, though, so Pepper it is.