Have you read this book?
Witches used to rule the world, and treat non-witches as servants or worse. Then iron was discovered, and found to be the antidote to magic. Centuries after the resulting massacre, the remaining witches live in fear or in ghettoes or incognito. This is the tale of Rifkin, a man trained in the Kung Fu-like Art of a sect of warrior priests. For reasons that we gradually discover, he is an exiled wanderer. Injured by a bear, he is healed by a witch but is obliged in exchange to become her bodyguard. Which is rather a problem as she and a handful of other witches are about to be attacked in their old castle by the army of an unfriendly duke, augmented by a band of assassins.
That’s most of the main plot, which is not particularly substantial. However it holds the book together well enough, in part because we don’t discover it all at once but piecemeal. In particular Rifkin’s past is teasingly revealed in dribs and drabs, partly by the judicious use of flashback. The combination of this history and the current action means that the book has no problem at all keeping the reader interested; in fact it scores well as a page-turner.
What about the characterization? Not bad, considering that this is only a 200 page book. In particular the various witches in the castle are surprisingly well drawn, so that I didn’t have any difficulty remembering which witch was which. It helped that, as well as using spells, different witches possess different powers: one can throw lightning, another can shape shift, a third mindspeak, etc. Fortunately for the story these powers are limited, by the ability of the individual witch, his many years of training, and by his strength as using power is draining. What’s more, iron will disrupt a spell, and damage the witch who attempted it.
And the writing? That is the best thing about the book. Not only is it is well-written, but I found the style is reminiscent of the books of Roger Zelazny (the lesser books, but that’s still praise indeed!). Shetterly manages the same balancing act of having the hero double as narrator while not allowing him to reveal the plot too quickly, so preserving a feeling of mystery. As with Zelazny, he tends to write witty dialogue. (In the case of Rifkin, most of his conversations are studded with flippant humor, to an irritating degree. However this is an intentional part of his make-up, and the other characters find it just as irritating.)
In summary, this is a distinctly enjoyable book which manages to strike a good balance between action and magic, scenario and dialogue, and with a plot that is satisfying once you finally discover the twists. The only bad thing to report is its length: at 200 pages it left me wanting more. Indeed it feels like the first book in a series, and the ending left plenty of room for one. However there is no mention of sequels on the internet, and since it was written in 1986, it looks as though we shall have to be content with what we’ve got. Well worth reading.