Welcome to the Semi-Finals stage of SPFBO 8! As you know, we already cut 25 books from our batch of 30 and announced our semi-finalists. Check out our SPFBO 8 Phase 1 page for more info! In the next few weeks, we’ll post group reviews of each semi-finalist, then we’ll reveal our finalist towards the middle of October.
Our 2nd SPFBO 8 semi-finalist review is The Witch Hunter by Casey Hollingshead. The order of the reviews within a post will be the following: first will be the person who picked the book as a semi-finalist, and then the others in alphabetical order.
So, without further ado, let’s take a closer look at our 2nd semi-finalist!
|Series: Battle Brothers #1||Genre: Fantasy|
|Date of Publishing: March 15th, 2022||Publisher: self-published|
Hated. Distrusted. Needed. Richter von Dagentear, a witch hunter known in legend as the Wight, traverses a realm falling headfirst into war. To survive, he will have to betray his profession’s purpose and undertake a task that goes against everything he believes in. All that stands in his way are backstabbing nobles, cruel sellswords, terrible beasts, and a mysterious traveler from another world.
When I first saw the team’s selection of books, I knew immediately that The Witch Hunter was one I wanted in my allocation. It’s Grimdark, it has a Germanic flavour, and it’s by the lead writer of one of my favourite games, Battle Brothers.
The Witch Hunter follows Richter von Dagentear, a storied and infamous Hexenjäger, as he hunts and is, in turn, hunted across a ruthless and unforgiving world. If I were to liken it to anything, I’d say think of The Witcher, penned by Michael R. Fletcher, and you won’t be too far off.
Now, when it comes to Grimdark, there’s Grimdark, and then there’s GRIMDARK. The Witch Hunter belongs firmly and openly to the latter, wearing someone else’s stolen and partially chewed heart on its sleeve. The first half of the book is decidedly darker, with references to rape and the murder of older children, which will understandably turn people away. But if you persevere through to the second half, you are rewarded with some of the best battle sequences I’ve ever read, alongside delectable tongue-in-cheek dialogue and enemies to sworn brothers (who would probably still kill each other) vibes.
As already mentioned, the world of The Witch Hunter is bleak, with almost everyone out for themselves, but it’s a world packed with flavour, even if it is the flavour of week-old viscera. There are, though, some sparks of humanity still dancing in the ashes, not least being Hobbs, who, despite being an unwanted ward, becomes a moral anchor of sorts, slowly eking Richter the man from the calcified shell of Richter the myth. Their relationship, despite its subtleness, really is the star of the show offering hope as a counterpoint to the almost suffocating cynicism. It’s not the brightest of lights, I admit, but it is a light nevertheless, and without it, the world may as well just fall on its knees and fucking rot.
Throughout the book, the character work is, for me, never anything less than spectacular. Almost everyone is reprehensible and utterly grotesque, yet they all still manage to exude personality and presence. Everyone’s dialogue fits them perfectly, and while on occasion erring towards the philosophical, is delivered organically and with bite. The bickering and acidic snark between the company members in the book’s second half, predominantly from Quinn, is absolute chef’s kiss.
Equally as good were the battle scenes, both intense and intimate, being either one-on-one or between small groups. They are perhaps on the shorter side, but this is to be expected given the impetuous nature of the skirmishes.
My only criticism is perhaps that the arc of the ‘traveller’ is a little too mysterious, and come the end of the book, it’s not 100% clear what his actual goal or impact has been. If you’ve played the Battle Brothers game, you may have slightly more of an idea and will also chuckle at the Hoggart the Weasel Easter egg, but if you haven’t played the game, don’t worry, it won’t impact your enjoyment of the novel.
My time with The Witch Hunter was short, so this review will be equally brief. I ended up DNFing this one close to the 60% mark, not that it’s a bad book, but because the harmony of its elements didn’t resonate as I expected.
Its best bits are the blood and gore, which run hammock through the savage plains of this world. They not only do justice to its grimdark banner but add an ominous presage to every scene, and I delighted in the darkness of it. If enjoying beheadings and unexpected betrayal is wrong, then I don’t wanna be right. Every moment is brutal and filthy, in contrast giving heart to the main mentor relationship between our witch hunter and his accidentally kinda-adopted son. The reluctant father trope is always a weak spot for me, and I enjoyed its progress.
But in the end, I wasn’t prompted to continue by the other elements of the story. The pacing moves at snail-speed for most of what I read, and because of that, the grim elements take up 100% of the focus. I enjoyed their abundance, but at some point, the actual plot of the story was obscured.
Since this book is based on a video game, perhaps the fault lies in my unfamiliarity with its lore. Yet the familiarity I felt with the book’s elements didn’t prompt me to move forward.
The Witch Hunter was always going to be a book that I was predisposed to like. I’ve been known to enjoy books that are on the darker side and a little grim shall we say. Throw in the fact that it is based on a game, in this case Battle Brothers, and yeah you could say I was eager to get started. I don’t think I was prepared for just how dark this book was, but once I got used to the tone and the writing style I settled in quite nicely with it. This book was really impressive in its world-building and action sequences. Some of the battle scenes are so intense that I found myself clenching my teeth at times. But I guess that’s to be expected seeing as how this book take its roots from a pretty action-packed game with battles galore. It’s easy to see why Casey Hollingshead is the head writer for Battle Brothers because there’s much more depth to his writing than simply hammering out one dark and bloody sequence after the other. Dare I say I got pretty connected to these characters as well? Whether it be main character and witch hunter Richter or the side characters, each was brought to life in a vivid and very real way. Ultimately once I turned the final page I simply wanted another book pronto because this one ends with some questions that I need answering. But that’s also part of the fun of The Witch Hunter, the mysteries it puts forth kept me sucked in and now I just have to read every installment from here on out. Definitely enjoyed this one a great deal!
I think I’ll just go and rip the band-aid off: I did not like The Witch Hunter. In fact, I only managed to read 41%, which I know is less than 50% but I honestly couldn’t see my opinion changing all that much. As I was trying to put my thoughts together, I kept wondering why this book fell short for me. Is it the book? Is it me? The truth might be a little bit of both. While I enjoyed grimdark books in the past, I haven’t read much of them in a while. I simply wasn’t in the mood for them. But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be able to appreciate one. And so, my main issue with The Witch Hunter was that when it was grimdark, it was a bit over the top. It felt like the extra gorey details were there for shock value. Less could have been more. Also, everything is just bleak in this world. The characters, the places, the situations. Except for maybe Hobbs, an innocent child who strikes an unlikely friendship with Richter. The only thing I actually liked about this book were their relationship and conversations. Other than that, I was either bored or disgusted. Or confused as suddenly there was a siege going on out of the blue.
It started out well-ish, though. After the first chapter I had this vibe, like the real Grimm tales, just the grimmness turned up by a notch. Or two. Or a lot. The encounter with the witch could have been a great set up if Richter didn’t loose my interest pretty quickly. I just couldn’t see any purpose to him or his actions. It probably didn’t help that there is a long journeying sequence, which is something I don’t like much reading about. The only mildly interesting character is Yuchi, who follows Richter’s trail, but even he remains pretty much one dimensional. I wish I was invested enough to find out about the whole Davkul business, but alas, The Witch Hunter really wasn’t my cup of tea, which doesn’t mean the lovers of the genre wouldn’t find it more enjoyable than I did. It certainly has a dark german folklore taste to it, sprinkled with violence and battles. Being a debut novel, it leaves some things to be desired, but it surely will find its audience – as you can see from the reviews of some of my fellow judges.
For more SPFBO content, please visit our SPFBO 8 Phase 1 page!