The Mist-Torn Witches
by Barb Hendee
2013 • 336 pages • Roc
Last year, buoyed by the runaway success of Frozen and Sleepy Hollow, I predicted that sisters were going to be the next big thing in media. Alas, it hasn’t dominated the cultural landscape as I’d hoped, but the realization that women can have meaningful relationships with other women has saturated mainstream media to a small but significant degree. (Fun fact: Maleficent fails the reverse Bechdel test. I have no idea how the live-action versions of Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast are meant to top that, but Cinderella features Cate Blanchett with a cat on a leash, so I’ve got hopes.) Case in point: The Mist-Torn Witches, a fantasy novel that caught my eye while I was working at the bookstore for featuring two young women. Lovely!, I thought, and faced it out, despite being a tiny mass market paperback. (I was fanatical about facing out diverse speculative fiction at the store. It helps to see a friendly face or two.)
The Mist-Torn Witches’ young ladies are the sisters Amelie and Céline Fawe. Having lost their father and then their seer mother at a young age, the two sisters scrape together a living, with the diplomatic Céline pretending to be a seer and the rough and tumble Amelie as her guardian. One day, Céline is approached by representatives of the tyrannical sub-prince Damek, who want her to assure the Lady Rhiannon that she should marry Damek. Céline agrees, but when the girl shows up, she has her first real vision—Rhiannon being murdered by her husband. Céline warns her against the match. In retaliation, Damek has their home burnt down, but they are rescued by Damek’s brother, Anton, who wants their help in solving a recent run of bizarre murders. Pretty, unmarried women are being found not only dead, but dried to a husk. Unused to their new powers and the politics of court, Céline and Amelie have to solve the murders if they want to ever find a home again.
Largely, The Mist-Torn Witches is a breezy, easy to digest mystery. There are some romance elements—Céline and Anton are circling each other, as are Amelie and Anton’s second-in-command, Jaromir. (Jaromir, as we all know, is the ship name for Faramir and Jamiroquai.) But it’s too fleet to ever really focus, trying to hit plot milestones so hard that it forgets to even develop its characters. Halfway through the novel, we learn that Amelie also has magical powers: where Céline can look into the future, Amelie can look into the past. The discovery buoys her, having always thought of herself as mundane compared to her sister… a fact we learn in a single line a chapter before this revelation. Jaromir has a tragic past that he can’t talk to anyone about… even though that tragic past’s most significant event is fighting off a pack of assassins trying to kill Anton. Couldn’t he talk to Anton about this? It’s not that these character choices are poor or nonsensical choices, it’s that they’re not very well developed or executed. Even the villain, whose ambition is to become the power behind the throne for a son or son surrogate, takes a detour to pursue eternal youth and beauty without any explanation of why besides assuming that the world of The Mist-Torn Witches adheres rigidly to medieval European gender standards, despite women being able to refuse suitors. I’m writing this review a day after reading it, and it’s all just dissolved in my memory.
What hasn’t is are the problematic elements of the novel. The Romani-inspired Móndyalítko play a large part in the novel. They are almost always referred to by the common Romani slur, despite the fact that the world of The Mist-Torn Witches clearly lacks the Egypt from whence that slur is derived. While it’s revealed that Amelie and Céline’s mother was Móndyalítko and that this is where their magical abilities come from, the Móndyalítko we do meet fall uncomfortably into stereotypes: fortune tellers, tempestuous, beautiful dancers, and an innate magic that our villain would (and does) kill for. While I’d have to revisit The Name of the Wind, I don’t remember the Romani-inspired Edema Ruh getting this treatment, perhaps because Kovthe is Edema Ruh himself. And then there’s the treatment of Inna, a clearly mentally ill young woman who broke down after the death of Anton’s wife, her mistress, and is now fanatically devoted to Anton. The characters don’t have an ounce of kindness for her, despite her troubles. It’s incredibly careless.
I rented this book from the public library.