THE PLOT: ‘Witches Steeped in Gold’ by Ciannon Smart is a young-adult fantasy set in a magical Caribbean-inspired land. Ten years before the novel opens, the rulers of this land – the Adair family – have been overthrown. Now, their order of Obeah witches is subservient to a new clan and their magic is suppressed. But there are rumours of a lost empress – that the youngest Adair daughter, Iraya, lives. Meanwhile, the new ruling class – the Alumbrar witches – are in turmoil. Jazmyne, the daughter of the new ruler, dreams of taking control to bring peace to the nation. When Iraya is found and meets Jazmyne, can two witches who should be sworn enemies work together to save their country?
RATING: This novel really disappointed me. There was so much potential for this to be a powerful fantasy centring black characters and Caribbean culture, and I really wanted to love this book. However, I have a list of criticisms as long as my arm and feel generous to even give this book three stars. Firstly, the pacing was too slow. The plot doesn’t kick into gear for at least 350 pages. Secondly, the characters were one-dimensional. None of them got beyond loud proclamations about avenging their parents/sister. Connected to that point is the sheer amount of emotional sign-posting, the reader can’t just experience the book because there isn’t much action so it mostly consists of whispered conversations and proclamations to tell you how the characters feel. And, finally, the rhythm of the Caribbean patois felt odd and uncomfortable. Overall, I really struggled and will not be reading the rest of the series. Nevertheless, it does have a beautiful cover.
GOOD BITS: The world-building is very detailed and intricate, and I could clearly visualise a beautiful, island fantasy-land. The author has put a lot of detail into the way the magic works in this land, although at points I wondered if it should’ve been pared back as it became quite confusing. I believe this could be an amazing film if CGI and locations could be used to recreate the world. However, I’d put it in the hands of an experienced screenwriter who could take the world and basic premise, but sharpen the plot.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the author’s writing style. My main problem is the plotting and pacing, which is something an editor should have fixed. There was so much potential in the world-building and concept, but the core story never really happens. It feels like the camera is always pointing to the wrong bit of the scene. You sense there’s something interesting happening just in the corner of the shot, but the focus is on the wrong part of the story. The author and editor needed to have a better concept of what key plot points needed a whole scene and what could have been summarised.
Example 1) Jazymne is sent on an important tour of the island, during which a pirate love interest is introduced for her. But, the tour is so condensed, so the reader doesn’t get to experience it. Then, the reader is quickly told in one paragraph how Jazymne and the pirate spent lots of time together during the tour and have fallen in love. We never get to see them form that connection; we’re just told it’s happened.
Example 2) Throughout the novel we’re told about this important Yielding Ceremony, which is a bit like the Hunger Games. I can understand why the author didn’t want to focus on this, but the reader never experiences one of the Yielding trials and is only told about them before or after the fact. This reduces what could have been exciting and crucial action into short summaries and reported speech. I believe it would be more satisfying for the reader if a crucial turning point in the plot could’ve taken place during one of the Yielding trials.
Example 3) Jazymne is invited to a dinner connected to the Yielding ceremony. We have pages of her preparing for the dinner and talking about how much she doesn’t want to go because of the underlying political tensions between the Alumbrar. But, after all that, the reader never gets to see the dinner. The crucial bit, where there was potential for action, is completely skipped over. I’d argue it would be better to simply start the scene with Jazmyne arriving at the dinner and show the reader the underlying tensions by the way she interacts with people there. The author could’ve tied a plot point to the dinner, such as an attack by the Jade Guild (insurgents) during the feast.
I know this review is already too long (and I could keep going), but the fundamental problem with this book goes back to the Aristotelian principle of storytelling – character is realised in action, which this book doesn’t have enough of.
OVERALL: As with all book reviews, this is completely subjective and some people have enjoyed this novel. Therefore, I’d recommend it to fans of ‘Children of Blood and Bone’ by Tomi Adeyemi and it sits alongside books like ‘Daughters of Nri’, ‘A Song of Wraiths and Ruin’, and ‘The Gilded Ones.’ However, I mentioned this book on my Instagram stories and it seemed like a lot of people gave up on it (DNF’d) halfway through. Overall, I believe in supporting other Black-British female novelists, and they writing style was OK so this wouldn’t deter me if the author released a completely different series in a few years’ time.