Water Witch

by Cynthia Felice & Connie Willis

Cover image

Publisher: Ace
Copyright: January 1982
ISBN: 0-441-87379-0
Format: Mass market
Pages: 216

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Radi is the fiancé of the Queen of the City in the Red Cave, the settlement that controls the water supplies on the desert planet of Mahali and hence its politics. The City in the Red Cave gains its control somewhat from the vast computer system of water control, but more from its hereditary water witches, women who can sense water and have an uncanny natural instinct for how to balance its flows. Much of the royal family was killed in a coup, though, and with that much of the water witch ability was lost, making their political situation and relations with off-worlders much more precarious.

Deza and her father are con artists who pass Deza off as a princess and water witch, although she seems to have real abilities as well. Now her father is dead in a crash and Deza is on her own. Perhaps she can continue their last con alone, or with the help of what might be the spirit of her father and what might be her imagination, but that leaves open the question of why her father abandoned and fled that last con when it seemed to be going fine.

This is one of the first novels by both Connie Willis and Cynthia Felice, before Willis established her current sterling reputation. This is her first published novel; prior to this is only a short story collection. While it may look today like a typical "collaboration" between a famous and lesser-known author, I expect it's a true joint work. However, whether because of the collaboration or just because it's an early novel, this doesn't feel like a Willis novel. Connie Willis has a very distinctive, digressive, non-confrontationally persistent tone that's at least significantly dampened here. If you're looking for another novel like Doomsday Book or To Say Nothing of the Dog, Water Witch will probably be a disappointment.

Instead, it's a short character-driven story where most of the conflict comes from intrigue and trickery, based on a few standard tropes (planetary colony with an iffy grasp of technology, outsiders wanting to exploit the colony for local resources, psychic abilities) and a few obvious twists. There's some romance, a bit of a coming-of-age story, a chase through underground tunnels, and a nice concluding set-piece, but the whole story feels rather forgettable. I can think of individual pieces I liked, such as the water control system that we sadly see only at the very end) and Deza's telepathic conversations with her father, but I never cared strongly about the characters. Somehow, the book never clicked.

One explanation is that most of the characters can be too easily mapped to archetypes and stock figures. Deza is probably the best developed, and the con artist twist is a slightly different spin on the typical story, but in the end she's still a coming-of-age hero discovering her true past and extensive powers. Her father is the wise, hidden advisor, Radi is the love interest and protector, the villains are standard material, and the only real surprise is Edvar, Deza's mark, who turns out to be much smarter than he appears. One surprise is a far cry from Willis's later quirky and memorably persistent characters. (I can't speak to Felice's other work, as this is the first of her books I've read.)

This isn't a bad book. Unfortunately, neither is it a good one. It passed the time, there were some nice bits of world-building, and the climax was a satisfying payoff, but you can probably find a better book to spend the time on.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-08-22

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21