A Tunnel in the Sky

Like templetongate.net on Facebook  Follow @templetongate on Twitter
-Site Search

The Kingston Cycle
by C. L. Polk

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted February 27, 2019
Edits & Addenda on May 16 & 19, 2021

Witchmark / Stormsong / Soulstar

Buy from Bookshop or Amazon. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.

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. [Later nominated for Locus and World Fantasy awards.] 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.

[UPDATE: Winner of the 2019 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel.]

Basically a mystery with fantasy trappings, set in an alternate world, in a country reminiscent of England circa WW1, or perhaps a decade or so earlier. Only the country is Aeland, at war with Laneer. The Royal Knights are members of the Hundred Families, 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 [EDIT: or maybe not in all cases]. 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's 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. 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.


Buy from Bookshop or Amazon. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.

Posted May 16, 2021
I was wrong about this book featuring events in a different location, but I kept the same URL for this page. It's still set in Kingston, but with characters from other countries figuring into the plot. I still need to keep my comments brief to avoid spoilers, but should say that the major magical ability wielded by the Hundred Families was that of Stormsinging. For many years they had sheltered Aeland from what otherwise would have been devastatingly severe weather. It might seem that their talents should have been known and celebrated by all, except for the fact they were also the heads of government, finance, and industry, jealous of their position, thus they had oppressed those from the lower classes who also exhibited magical ability, and who might threaten their power. Miles's sister, Dame Grace Hensley, was one of the most powerful Storm-Singers, but she was not privy to some secrets held by her father and other leaders, and which we later learn were known by Queen Constantina. The climax of the first book broke one of the spells that was at once horrific (to other magicians), but that had also benefited the prosperity of the nation. Now there are several forces at odds in determining the fate of the guilty parties.

The Amaranthines are an elf-like race from Elondel, which I believe is in an alternate realm from Aeland and Laneer, accessible only at their behest. They rule over the Solace, where the souls of the dead reside. Tristan, one of their advance scouts, had come to Aeland to investigate why the Solace had not been receiving the souls for many years. He and Miles had partnered in the investigation, and they had fallen in love, Tristan proposing marriage. That was why I thought the second book might take place in Elondel, but instead many other Amaranthines had come to Aeland to seek justice for the deprived souls. Also, diplomats from Laneer have come to negotiate the peace, but they have secrets of their own, ones that have the potential to devastate Aeland worse than the strongest storms. Many other mysteries to unravel, made even more urgent when one of the leaders of the Laneer delegation is found dead under mysterious circumstances. By this time Grace has assumed her father's previous position of Chancellor, since he is in prison for his crimes, yet she fears he still has control of others in government, if not the Queen then possibly her heir, Prince Severin. The country is reeling from storms because Christopher Hensley is not the only one in prison, many others of the First Ring of Storm-Singers have also been implicated in his nefarious plots. In addition to all her other obligations, Grace is also now leading the remaining Singers, even though their power has diminshed. During the last event she sensed other magicians nearby working their own spells. She needs to find them and join forces, while also investigating the death of the Laneeran diplomat. She has to be wary of her father's continued machinations, and work to keep a crusading journalist from learning too much too quickly. She swears she will eventually reveal the complete truth, even if it means her own downfall.

Miles was the first-person narrator in Witchmark, Grace tells her own story here. As much as I love Miles and his integrity, it's possible I love Grace even more. Her only fault is naiveté, her too easy acceptance of the status qho. She had always been restricted by her upbringing, the responsibilities of being a Royal Knight, a Stormsinger. Miles resented several things she did in the first book, and still occasionally mistrusts her, but as she learns more about what her family and other leaders have done, she resolves to right all the wrongs. Her insulated life had not left time for friends or romance. Her betrothal had been merely another way for her father to consolidate his power, but she decided she did not want to play that game. Her naiveté even kept her from realizing Prince Severin's intentions, but true to her new nature she is able to rebuff his proposal. She knows she can do more good as Chancellor. Besides, she has set her romantic sights on another, and they are receptive to her desires. I previously mentioned that my rating of the first book was slightly lower due to inconsistencies in the magic; how were some "lower" magicians able to mask their power, and why were some more susceptible to the debilitating effects of copper? If I was to criticize the second book for anything it would be its dangling conclusion. Grace's father is still alive and dangerous, and while Prince Severin is now on the throne, he may have a harder time accepting her counsel after she refused his hand in marriage. She also hasn't gathered the other magicians to confront the upcoming storm, the strongest she has ever sensed. Hopefully that will all be wrapped up in the third book, which I'll be starting shortly, but the cover image leads me to believe the story will be told by yet another character. The first two books are highly recommended, and I have confidence the conclusion will be as strong. I'll know soon enough.


Buy from Bookshop or Amazon. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.

Posted May 19, 2021
There is a new narrative voice in the concluding novel, and it is the person I expected it would be. Robin Thorpe was a nurse who worked with Miles at Beauregard Veterans Hospital, but she had plans to go back to medical school to become a surgeon. Not only is she the best nurse Miles had ever seen, she was also an activist for political and labor causes within the Solidarity movement. She is a Black woman whose family were immigrants from Saminda, a country which had allied with other democratic nations to establish true populist rule, something she desperately wants to see happen in Aeland. She gets her chance sooner than she expected, since she has to put her schooling on hold due to the collapse of Aeland's aether power network, details of which I still don't want to reveal. Instead, Robin is hired by Grace to help her organize reform proposals to submit to King Severin. At the same time, the head of the Free Democracy Party expects her to continue her work with them. Jacob Clarke was the leader, a member of the Lower House, but Robin was always the planner, the organizer. Those are just a couple of Robin's quandaries.

Robin is also a witch, one who had the ability to mask her abilities from others, even other magicians such as Miles. If not for that, she may have suffered the same fate as her spouse twenty years prior to the main action. Zelind had been betrayed by someone in kher clan, arrested and incarcerated in the Clarity House asylum, where kher Deathsinger ability was put to use. Robin is also a Deathsinger. Almost everyone could see or sense ghosts, but Deathsingers had the ability to converse with them, to get their help in resolving issues that would aid their transition into the Solace. As noted by the alternate pronouns, Zelind is non-binary. Khe is traumatized by kher ordeal in the asylum, refuses to return to kher clan house when liberated, and while khe moves in with Robin khe is still emotionally detached. Robin is torn between wanting to repair their relationship and all her other responsibilities, made more dire by the assassination of Jacob Clarke, which propels her into even more of a leadership position for Solidarity. She is tapped to run for Jacob's vacant Lower House seat in the upcoming election. Thus she has to turn down Grace's offer, campaign for election, and cautiously investigate Jacob's death, all while walking a tightrope of emotional conflicts with Zelind.

A soulstar is created when a witch or magician bonds with the soul of a dying person. Miles has even more extraordinary powers than before due to acquiring multiple soulstars during the climactic rescue at Clarity House at the end of the first book. Robin is present at the death of Jacob Clarke, is able to continue the speech he was giving when he was shot, yet she did not sense his soul remaining within her shortly after that. We later learn he was still bound with her, but it is possible she didn't sense it because they had worked together so long on so many campaigns, she couldn't distinguish between her own instincts and inclinations and what might have been his influence. This is another complicated, multi-layered mystery, with many credible suspects. While I would welcome further adventures with these remarkable characters, all the major issues are resolved satisfactorily, even though some of the villains do not get as harsh a punishment as they deserve. My only complaint about this book is that Avia Jessup was absent until the end. She was the crusading journalist with whom Grace had fallen in love, but she had been in hiding since she was wanted for sedition. They are reunited, Robin and Zelind's dilemma is resolved, and even though the Amaranthines return to Elondel, Tristan chooses to remain in Kingston, where he and Miles will marry. Aeland is embarking on democracy, and while there will be growing pains, since the worry of severe weather has been eliminated, their efforts can be directed toward more important things. A truly wondrous trilogy that is highly recommended. It is fraught with peril throughout, but also hope, optimism, and love.


We would appreciate your support for this site with your purchases from Amazon, Bookshop, and ReAnimusPress.


C. L. Polk

Witchmark - 6/19/18
Stormsong - 2/11/20
Soulstar - 2/16/21

Witchmark won:
World Fantasy

Finalist for:

Purchase Links:


A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.