‘Witchblood’ (197 pp) was published by Ace Books in March 1986; the cover art is by Penalva.
Author Shetterly is best known for his shared-world series from the 1980s, set in the city of ‘Liavek’. He also authored the initial, and succeeding, volumes in the successful Young Adult series ‘Bordertown’.
‘Witchblood’ is set in a quasi-Oriental fantasy world, where those who practice magic – the Witches of the book’s title – have been forced to live apart from others, a consequence of wars and atrocities committed by their forebears against the common folk.
The novel’s protagonist is one Rifkin, a Zen adept and practitioner of Kung Fu; the narrative is a first-person flashback of his days as a wanderer.
During his travels off the beaten path, Rifkin finds himself obliged to serve as the bodyguard for a young witch named Naiji. This is no easy assignment, for the castle within which Naiji and her brother Talivane make their abode is due to come under attack by a warlord named Komaki. The castle’s defenders are badly outnumbered; can Rifkin teach them enough of the Art of the Warrior to ensure their survival ?
This perilous situation isn’t helped by Rifkin’s growing awareness that he has magical powers of his own. Are the powers his to control, or do they originate from a more sinister source ? As the forces of conquest move on Castle Gromandiel, Rifkin and his small force of defenders must find some way to wrest victory from what seems to be certain defeat ….
‘Witchblood’ is a competent take on infusing a sardonic, world-weary approach to the sword-and-sorcery theme.
As a protagonist, the diminutive Rifkin shies from the bellowing derring-do of a ‘Conan’ or ‘Brak the Barabarian’, preferring instead to avoid combat / bloodshed if at all possible (in the best Zen Martial Arts tradition). He delivers his koan-inspired aphorisms with more than a hint of humor. Indeed, with his constant quips, skepticisms, and wisecracks, Rifkin has more the personality of a Jewish, New York City-based standup comic than the traditional fantasy hero.
The novel relies heavily on lengthy passages of dialogue and banter to impart its story, and the action takes some time getting underway, but once the battle scenes start, they hold the reader’s interest.
Author Shetterly makes it clear that in this contest, complete victory may not be achievable, giving his novel a more gritty, realistic quality than that exhibited in other ‘Oriental’-themed fantasy novels, such as the ‘Rajan’ series by Tim Lukeman.