Witch King by Martha Wells fantasy book reviewsWitch King by Martha Wells fantasy book reviewsWitch King by Martha Wells

2023’s Witch King, by Martha Wells, is the first book in a new fantasy series, THE RISING WORLD. In the opening pages we meet Kaiisteron, who goes by Kai, the Witch King of the title. Kai awakens in a strange place, unable to move. He can mentally contact his friend Ziedi, but their magical connection should let him know exactly where she is, and he can’t find her. He can’t find his own body, either.

From there, things get scary.

The book starts in media res, with dramatic action, as we see Kai’s power and his vulnerability—and the first batch of the adversaries he faces in this book. Soon he, his Witch companion Ziedi and the vulnerable human girl Sanja are traveling across the sea, trying to determine who betrayed Kai and Ziedi, why two of their closest friends have disappeared, and whether one of them is the betrayer.

Kai is a demon, residing in the body of a human. Using two storylines, the present quest to unravel the plot against Kai, and a past-tense story, Wells unfolds how Kai came to the world above, and how he and the nomadic plains people who fostered him were conquered, along with the rest of the continent, by a magic-wielding group who call themselves the Hierarchs. Most if not all of the people in Kai’s world are familiar with magic; in addition to the demons, who, by invitation, reanimate the bodies of the recent dead and assume their lives in the clan, providing protection for the humans, there are Witches and the Immortal Blessed. The Witches draw powers from agreements with various elements. The Immortal Blessed were the strangest (and least pleasant) of the magic-users to my mind. The Hierarches overcame each of them. They use intention magic and draw on various wells of power, but their own power seems to go beyond that. The Hierarchs were defeated (or it looks like it, anyway) and an alliance called the Rising World Coalition has arisen, but there are cracks in the coalition, and several of its members now call it the Empire of the Rising World. And since no one ever knew exactly where the Hierarchs came from and what they wanted, there is a real fear that they may come back, more powerful than before.

Kai and Ziedi were preparing to speak at the Rising World alliance renewal when they were drugged and hidden away—functionally an assassination attempt on Kai. As they struggle to find their friends, they don’t know who they can trust, because there is more than one adversary in this fight. Even the demons, in their own realm of underearth, distrust Kai because he has broken one of their most sacred laws—more than once.

I liked these characters, and the world Wells spun for us. The world, with its magic and strange beasts, is especially lush and appealing. Kai and his team careen from one adventure, or one problem, to another, and every batch of answers lead to more questions. Kai, in particular, doesn’t like where they seem to be leading.

The world is fantastical, the adventure very different, and Kai is a talented political operative rather than an embittered security android, but at times Kai sounds very much like Murderbot from the author’s science fiction novellas. In particular, Kai worries about his “terrible plans” a lot of the time. It was impossible for me not to hear the echo of Murderbot’s voice in that phrase. Otherwise, the dialogue among the primary characters bristles with dry wit. Bashasa, a Hierarch client-state prince Kai meets in the past-tense story, is distinctive throughout, and Sanja’s street-kid smarts are a contrast to her ignorance and naivete about demons.

After the shocking and dazzling opening, the book moved slowly for me for a while. I think I was adjusting to the characters. By about one-third of the way in, I was fascinated, and settled down for a very enjoyable read. It’s a good, tense adventure that leaves us with the primary plot resolved and plenty of questions to be answered in later books. This was an enjoyable outing.

Published in May 2023. After being murdered, his consciousness dormant and unaware of the passing of time while confined in an elaborate water trap, Kai wakes to find a lesser mage attempting to harness Kai’s magic to his own advantage. That was never going to go well. But why was Kai imprisoned in the first place? What has changed in the world since his assassination? And why does the Rising World Coalition appear to be growing in influence? Kai will need to pull his allies close and draw on all his pain magic if he is to answer even the least of these questions. He’s not going to like the answers.


  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.