This review is based on an eARC (Advance Reading Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Witch King will be released on May 30, 2023.
Between The Books of the Raksura and The Murderbot Diaries, Martha Wells has become one of my favorite character writers in the contemporary sci-fi/fantasy genre—especially when she’s writing outsider characters with a penchant for sarcasm. And so it’s fair to say that her new fantasy novel Witch King ascended to the top of my TBR pretty quickly.
Witch King stars another character with a penchant for sarcasm, the demon Kai (who is demonic in the “came from the underworld and can possess a mortal body after its original occupant dies” sort of way, not the “is evil” sort of way). Kai’s story is split between two alternating timelines, separated by decades. In one, he is trying to beat back the terrifying conquest of the Hierarchs and help form some kind of alliance that can stand against them. In the second, he has been betrayed and imprisoned and must identify his betrayers and find his missing allies before any more damage is done.
While I find Wells’ characterization to be a consistent strength, I have often struggled to connect to more action-heavy segments in her previous work. More than once, a character-driven first half has had me making room on my all-time favorites list before the action sequence at the end saw me downgrade my overall opinion to “quite good.” This is not a universal opinion (and, for reference, I recall feeling the setup/ending dichotomies mostly strongly in The Siren Depths, Artificial Condition, and Network Effect), so if you’ve read her work in the past, feel free to put more or less stock in this review based on your own assessments. But I find that the two-timeline structure in Witch King throws the characterization-to-plot ratio badly out of balance, making it hard to generate that initial character investment and relying more heavily on action that just isn’t interesting enough to sustain my attention.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with Kai as a character, we just don’t spend much time getting to know him before he finds himself in mortal peril. And the time we do spend getting to know him is split across two timelines, delivering a fragmented portrait of a character who used to be fairly uncertain in his power but can now confidently rise to a whole host of challenges. It’s not that the character is inconsistent, it’s that it’s harder to generate the kind of connection that felt so natural with Moon and Murderbot when the lead’s inner life changes so drastically from chapter to chapter, and when there’s relatively little time for the characters to breathe before the action gets going.
Making matters worse is a fairly complicated soft magic system, with readers having to keep track of Demons, Witches, Hierarchs, and Immortal Blessed—never mind the odd ghoul or spirit—all of which have different supernatural abilities. It feels a bit like a worst-of-both-worlds, without enough detail to satisfy the hard magic aficionados but with enough information to distract those who prefer more of a character focus.
The writing itself is perfectly professional. It’s Martha Wells, of course it is. And there’s nothing especially wrong with the plot, for all that it’s very much two stories stuffed into one book. It’s the structure that made this book such a struggle for me. There are so many thematic parallels between the two timelines that I can only assume the alternating structure was chosen to highlight them—seeing the lead and his compatriots walking the literal same ground on which they fought so hard decades before. But in practice, it introduces more confusion that it delivers thematic resonance. There are enough parallels that it can take a few paragraphs for the reader to orient themselves in the proper story, and it splits valuable interpersonal development among too many characters at too many stages of their relationships.
As you can see, I didn’t like this one. Of course, with an author like this, there’s a baseline of quality that never wavers. The prose is easy to read, and you won’t find many elementary mistakes. But the characters didn’t jump off the page as they have in some of her other works, and the two timeline structure didn’t effectively highlight any strong elements there were, instead providing a significant impediment to immersion. It’s not a book I can really recommend, but I’ll certainly be back to try again with her next release.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Angels and Demons, Coastal Setting, and Queernorm Setting, and it’s also Published in 2023 and has a Title with a Title. There is Elemental Magic, but I’m honestly not sure I got a sense of whether it was the main sort of magic. It was certainly the main magic for the Witches.
Overall rating: 10 of Tar Vol’s 20. Two stars on Goodreads.