by C. L. Polk
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
This will be a brief review, since even the few elements I could criticize would involve spoilers. Witchmark is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula for Best Novel. I had read a brief synopsis last year, and even an excerpt posted at Tor.com didn't intrigue me enough to buy it, or even request it from Net Galley. Then a couple of weeks ago, before the Nebula announcement, Tor offered it as their monthly free download. Suffice it to say I wasn't sure I would like it, and the first few chapters didn't refute that notion, but I gave it a chance and before long I fell under its spell. My positive opinion increased as I continued, and it falls shy of a 5 star rating only due to what I consider inconsistencies in the magic systems described, but I won't elaborate.
Basically a mystery with fantasy trappings, set in an alternate world, in a country reminiscent of England circa WW1, only the country is Aeland, at war with Laneer. The Hundred Families are mages who advise and support the monarchy, although their magical abilities are a secret to the rest of the country, even to their own servants. Some people in the lower classes exhibit magical abilities as well, but when discovered they are branded witches and banished to asylums. The why of that plays into the mystery being investigated by Dr. Miles Singer, a psychiatrist at Beauregard Veterans Hospital, treating soldiers returned from the war. Singer (not his real name) is also a veteran, having served as a surgeon in the Laneer campaign, which gives his patients confidence in his care. Unfortunately, he is unable to adequately diagnose and treat a strange malady the majority of his patients exhibit, due to the necessity of hiding his own magical abilities. Then a chance encounter with a man who dies shortly after claiming he was poisoned, and who somehow knows Miles' true name and nature, leads to discoveries that will shake the foundations of Aeland society.
This gets a strong recommendation. I've now read four of the six novels nominated for the Nebula. All are very good, and while I can't vote I do have my favorite. It's not Witchmark, but then again, it would not be a disappointment if it wins. It's a fantasy world, but one which reflects situations in the real world. There will always be the Haves and the Have-Nots. Power resides with the rich, who control the world's destiny and drive the impetus to war through greed and the need to sustain their industries. The general population is patriotic, supporting the war, but it's possible they will be crushed by its aftermath. Everyone is aware of the heirarchies of society, show deference to nobility and condescension to those of lesser status. Even the Families have a rigid caste system, which is the reason Miles ran away from them. As with most mysteries there are red herrings, suspicion thrown on certain characters. Sometimes they are able to explain themselves out of a situation, yet doubts linger. I became immersed in this world, its quaint customs, anachronistic technologies, and its ominous magic. But the highlight is Miles. He's an exemplary character, intelligent, benevolent, caring, anxious to help, whether it be through magic or merely goodwill. I hope he is able to gain and maintain his heart's desire. I'm interested in the follow-up due a year from now. I'm not sure of the title though. Amazon says "Stormsong," but FantasticFiction.com shows the cover image with that title, but identifies it as "Greystar." There's only a link for Kindle at this time, but I'll update when more information is available. The collective name for the series is the Kingston Cycle (Kingston is the capital city of Aeland), but I decided to use the first book's title for this page, since it is possible a lot of the action in the second book may take place somewhere other than Kingston. We shall see.
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