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Book: “Witch King” by Martha Wells
Publishing Info: Tor, May 2023
Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher!
Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat
Book Description: “I didn’t know you were a… demon.”
“You idiot. I’m the demon.”
Kai’s having a long day in Martha Wells’ Witch King….
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.
Review: While I’m not up-to-date with Martha Well’s current, very popular “Murderbot” series, I am a big fan of her in general. I read all of her “Books of Raksura” series a decade or so ago, for example. As with many SFF authors, it can become quite intimating to start up on a long-running series, regardless of how much one likes the author in general. So when I saw that she was releasing a stand-alone fantasy novel, I jumped on the opportunity to get back to reading her work. Let’s dive in!
After awakening from his own murder, Kai is fairly disturbed. As a demon, changing bodies is not pleasant, but it is manageable. What’s more worrying is the loss of time and the changing political movements of the world at large. With generations of lives making up his own long life-span, Kai is dependent on the few allies he has who have also experienced both his past and his present. But now they, too, are missing, and Kai is desperate not only to find them but to uphold a promise made long ago.
Brandon Sanderson is indisputably the current master of fantasy world-building. But I think what is not acknowledged is Martha Wells’ dynasty as a master of original character work. Not only are all of her characters enfolded in complex, layered arcs in each of their books, but she also has a real skill at writing non-human protagonists that, none the less, reflect very human challenges, joys, and sorrows but through very unique angles. The “Murderbot” series is an obvious example, but the series I read about a decade ago also featured an entire world “peopled” by alien creatures without a humanoid in sight (that I remember at least). And here, in this book, Wells is back at it, presenting us not only with Kai, a demon, but with an entire society built up around various peoples, many humanoid but not quite human either.
But, of course, Kai is our main character. And while some of the typical lore around demons is touched on, it is clear early on that Kai is not the sort of demon we are familiar with. Instead, his kind have formed a symbiotic pact with a group of human people where both societies benefit from the intermingling of their kind. But, through a series of flashbacks seen throughout the book, a powerful and ruthless new group of magic users began a marching conquest of the known world that resulted in the decimation not only of demon kind but also of the many peoples who make up this world.
The use of these flashbacks was incredibly effective, though I will say they highlight another crucial aspect of Wells’ writing style. She’s definitely of those high fantasy authors who creates incredibly complex and nuanced worlds and just plops her readers down right in the middle of the action. You basically have to be comfortably not understanding everything you’re currently reading on the page. Instead, the joy is found in trusting that understanding will come, and it will come in a very specifically constructed and directed manner laid out by the author. In this book, as the story is about a being who has lived for generations, these flashbacks do a lot of work to really set up the stakes of the current situation. Not only the history behind the current political upheaval, but also the relationships Kai has formed with his small band of allies, all of whom we slowly meet throughout the story.
The writing and plotting is also incredibly tight. There were moments when I was laughing out loud at the dialogue and Kai’s distinctly unhuman manner of looking at the world. But then there would be heart-wrenching scenes that perfectly highlighted that while not all of these characters are human, they still experience the same sense of love and betrayal, hope and despair. The pace was steady and even throughout the story, and I enjoyed the themes of found family, trust, and the struggle of individual cultures and peoples when facing a powerful enemy. Overall, I can’t recommend this book enough to SFF readers. It’s definitely not an “entry level” story, but if you’re a fantasy fan who enjoys slowly building an understanding of a world and story, than this is the perfect book for you!
Rating 10: A sprawling world and history to explore alongside the best grumpy, snark demon I can imagine!
“Witch King” can be found on this Goodreads list: Can’t Wait Books of 2023