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Book Review | Witch King by Martha Wells

From the publisher: 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.

I love Martha Wells. It is not an exaggeration to say that her Murderbot Diaries series helped me get through the pandemic with my sanity intact. The Murderbot Diaries series is science fiction; Witch King is fantasy. But it is every bit as engrossing, populated with fascinating and fully realized characters. Witch King is a tantalizing glimpse into another world, populated by normal people, demons, witches, and a bunch of characters with confusing titles like Immortal Marshall, Lesser Blessed, expositor, and Hierarchs. So many titles, so many names, so many similar names. This is a fascinating and detailed world, and we are dropped into the middle of a crisis where the main characters don’t even know what’s going on.

The book moves back and forth in time. In the Past thread, aggressors are killing anyone who resists them, including entire cultures. In the Present thread, almost 70 years have passed, and a coalition that defeated the aggressors are trying to find a new normal. Four main characters who are immortal or long-lived appear in both threads.

Did I like the Witch King the first time through? It’s by Martha Wells, so of course I did. However, I also found it a bit frustrating. I found the mixed-up timeline confusing and hard to follow. There are many books where the back and forth works well – Project Hail Mary wouldn’t work without it – but I found it particularly baffling here. Maybe because of the unfamiliar names, places, peoples, titles. There is a helpful list of characters at the front of the book, but I still got confused, especially by Bashat and Bashasa, who are not the same person but are related and carry the same title. It took me a long time to realize that.

When I finished reading Witch King I would have rated it 4 stars, maybe even 3.5. But this is Martha Wells! I can’t have that if I can avoid it! So I immediately reread it. First I read the Past sections in order, then I read the Present chapters in order. I enjoyed the book so much more the second time through and I now give it a solid 5 stars. Maybe just rereading it as written would have had the same effect, but I’m glad I read the timelines in order all the same.

I like the main characters and their relationships, which are deep and need more books to explain more fully. Kai (aka Witch King) is a demon of the underearth, who can step into the bodies of the recently dead and is as close as one gets to being immortal. Still, he is vulnerable to certain techniques.

Wells is clever to call Kai a demon. It sets up certain expectations, expectations that are not met. He actually reminds me a lot of the author’s other big character – SecUnit from the Murderbot series. Kai is a magical being in a fantasy world who wants to help people and, for example, shows concern for a whale enslaved to carry a ship. SecUnit is a being in a science fiction world who is crafted of technology and organic matter and is seen as cargo, property, and a dangerous weapon, when all SecUnit wants it to help people and watch entertainment serials. (Don’t get me wrong – the stories are completely different in most ways. But I think if they met Kai and SecUnit would find they have a lot in common.)

One of the things I like about Martha Wells is that her books are inclusive without being in-your-face-woke. Kai is a male demon who has had both male and female human bodies. In one of the main cultures represented in the book, women wear pants and are the soldiers, and men wear skirts. Two of the four main characters in both timelines are women who are married to each other, and Kai is attracted to men. The fourth main character shows traits we are familiar with – he doesn’t like much physical contact, he doesn’t pick up social cues, his communication is curt and often unhelpful to others – but he is not given a label of any kind. All of this is laid out as a natural part of the narrative and the characters. It’s refreshing compared to some books I have read lately where I imagine the author checking items off a list. (Trans? Lesbian? Gay? On the spectrum? check check check check.)

I do find the title odd, misleading, and inaccurate. Kaiisteron is neither a Witch nor a King. He describes himself as an immortal demon prince. He is called Witch King in legends of what happened in the past (but that almost seems like it is in the story so the book can be called Witch King). If this is not a series, The Rising World seems like a better title. If it is a series, The Rising World series, there still have to be a dozen better titles than Witch King.

Is this a standalone novel? It sure doesn’t seem like it. I hope not. I will read the sequel if one comes along.

I read an advance reader copy of Witch King from Netgalley. It is scheduled to be published on May 30, and the Galesburg Public Library will own it in print and as an ebook.

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