The Witch’s Lens (The Order of the Seven Stars)

Written by Luanne G. Smith
Review by Judith Starkston

Set during WWI in the Carpathian Mountains, The Witch’s Lens adds a fantastical layer to the horror of the Great War. Alongside soldiers with rifles and artillery, witches wage battles with curses and spells, and something worse, the resurrected dead turned into bloodthirsty monsters.

In a nearby city, Petra struggles after her husband goes to fight. He has left her a camera as a gift, and she wanders at night snapping pictures on instinct. Unseen ghosts appear in the developed pictures. She’s a witch, but for years she’s buried her abilities and never knew of this one. The novel reveals her complex past slowly, as a mysterious man recruits her into a band of witches to fight on the front. As counterweight to the novel’s grimness, Petra develops bonds of friendship that allow her and the others to perform extraordinary acts of courage to save ordinary soldiers like her husband.

Smith develops the WWI historical world effectively and thus grounds the fantasy in a dark, gripping reality. However, her magical details are even more impressive, blending Eastern European folk motifs and legends with gruesome imagination. An early appearance of an undead soldier shows her talent for evocative description: “The stench of the creature’s breath and the clammy fishlike color of his skin nauseated her even from two meters away…a fully fleshed-out creature with teeth bared and bloodlust churning in its veins.”

Smith puts the historical horrors of the “war to end all wars” through a prism that both amplifies and elucidates the degree of evil that war unleashes on the world, all while telling a spellbinding, captivating story. As antidote to this dark theme, Smith portrays the redeeming idea of loyalty and sacrifice that transcends evil.