C.L. Polk’s debut novel, Witchmark (2018), book one in THE KINGSTON CYCLE, was a delight to read. It’s a second-world fantasy set in country a lot like Britain at a time a lot like the end of World War I, with seriously traumatized soldiers returning to Aeland after the end of the nation’s successful war with Laneer. There are some important differences. Aeland’s war was purely one of conquest, and Aeland’s world has magic.
Miles Singer was a soldier and a doctor in the war, and now he practices psychiatry at a soldiers’ hospital. He is trying to discover the root cause of a violent, horrifying delusion too many returning soldiers have, one that makes them commit violent acts against the people they love. In the opening chapter, Miles tries to save a dying man who says he was poisoned, but to Miles’s horror, the man calls Miles “starred one,” outing Miles as someone gifted with magic — a witch. This threatens the carefully constructed identity Miles has created for himself and jeopardizes his very freedom.
The cover blub describes the world as “reminiscent of the Edwardian era” in Britain and this is accurate. Motorcars are catching on, and people have “aetheric” appliances that run in their homes. When a man named Mr. Hunter uncovers Miles’s hidden gift for magic, he presses Miles into helping him investigate the death of the poisoned man. Hunter himself has plenty to hide. In short order, Miles’s cover is blown and we learn that he is a member of the aristocracy, the only people in Aeland who are allowed to practice magic. A network of aristocratic magical practitioners maintains the weather in Aeland, keeping powerful storms at bay. In each family, one person is selected to be a Storm-Singer, and those with other magical gifts are “bound” or pressed into service as power sources for that person. Miles fled and changed his name because he wanted to practice his gift for healing, and it was sister Grace who was the designated singer. He wanted to be more than someone’s battery. Now that hard-won freedom is threatened.
At first the plot seemed to move a bit slowly, in part because the danger from Grace doesn’t seem imminent. Polk does a good job of lulling us, and Miles, into a sense that things might not be so bad. Soon, however, Miles is beset by his willfully naïve sister, his brutal, controlling father, and a director of medicine who says straight out that she will do whatever it takes to get big endowments from the aristocrats in order to keep the hospital running. Meanwhile, Miles and Hunter are stymied at every turn in their search to discover who poisoned the journalist and why. And how does this all tie into the psychosis Miles has identified in more and more returning soldiers?
Here’s what I loved about Witchmark: the Holmesian element of the investigation, and the growing romance between Tristian Hunter and Miles Singer. Hunter is not a human; what he is makes him a dangerous person to trust, and even more dangerous to fall in love with. This makes Miles conflicted and Hunter cautious, but feelings grow on both sides. The relationship ranges from let’s-be-friends to gently flirtatious to passionate, and the pacing of the romance fits perfectly with the other aspects of the plot. That’s pretty rare!
Here’s what I really liked: the steady and shocking assault on Miles’s belief system, and the way he becomes unblinkered as the story progresses. Even though he fled servitude, Miles has completely bought into the narrative his class constructed as the story opens. By the end, he sees his world in a very different way.
Oh, something else I loved: the bicycles!
It’s a measure of how engaged I was by the character of Miles’s sister Grace (who I did not like) that I went from straight-up distrust to a growing desire to shake her and shout, “Will you grow up!” That’s good characterization. Grace creates suspense every time she is on the page. Secondary characters, like Dr. Matheson and the nurse Robin, are well-rounded, with their own perspectives and values. Miles’s father is perhaps the least-developed but fulfills his function as a type we all recognize and love to hate.
The underpinning of the plot itself was not brand new, although it’s described in ways that made it both vivid and morally horrifying (as it should be). I like the magical system here, but I kept reading for the relationships and the who-done-it storyline. While the mystery is solved and Miles and Hunter have worked out most of their issues, the book is poised for the next in the series, Stormsong, which will probably take place on a more overtly political stage.
Although it starts a bit slowly, Witchmark was a thoroughly enjoyable read. Stormsong is due out in February 2020, and I look forward to reading it.