Review of Soulstar by C.L. Polk
by C.L. Polk
Have I ever remarked how much I appreciate books that have simple titles? Book titles can sometimes be so lengthy or convoluted. I appreciate the simplicity of each of the titles of C.L. Polk’s Kingston Cycle. Also, how did I not know Polk is Canadian until now?? Get a grip, Kara! I am pleased I procured Soulstar from my library not too long since I read Stormsong because I actually remember the ongoing story!
Spoilers for the first two books but not this one.
Our viewpoint protagonist this time is Robin Thorpe, who was a character in the first two books. We recently discovered that she is a Deathsinger, which is a necromantic type of witch in this world. The book picks up where Stormsong ended: King Severin has acceded to his mother’s throne, and he seems like he will be more progressive. Grace is still his Chancellor and is determined to make that true. His first act is to make witches legal again. Robin wants more though: she demands that all witches imprisoned in asylums be freed. This reunites her with Zelind (who uses khe/kher pronouns), whom Robin had secretly married long ago. Soon, Robin finds herself at the centre of a pronounced political push for more progress than Severin (and maybe even Grace) might be comfortable with.
Polk continues the theme they established in Stormsong of the battle of incrementalism versus revolution. Grace, our protagonist from the previous book, represented the well-meaning but privileged white woman feminist who just didn’t have a clue about what really needed to change. At the start of this book, Robin has to push her to go further, and much of this book is Robin’s journey of navigating the practicality of inciting revolutionary change. Somehow, Polk manages to make the details interesting. Robin attends meetings, plans elections, deals with police … aside from the setting and existence of magic, so much of this book feels relevant right now. As I look at the world around me and the need for change in our society, I see the Graces as well as the Robins. And I hope I’m more of a Robin than a Grace, but I am also a white woman and sooooooo….
The revolutionary push for democracy in Soulstar is also very interesting from a fantasy genre perspective. There was a time when I was writing a fantasy novel that also wanted to subvert the unquestioned monarchy that suffuses so many of our fantasy societies—my main character was going to be involved in a plot to overthrow the monarchy and install a democracy, but of course there were some additional complications (darn that magic). I might go back to it one day. But for now it’s just nice to see Polk taking that up—I always love fantasy settings that belie the stereotypical use of monarchies and semi-feudal societies modelled after a Europe that never was. Polk’s interpretation, with its echoes of Edwardian England, is a kind of extreme alternative history. It’s not at all subtle yet incredibly deft in its depiction of shifting political paradigms.
Polk approaches their characters with similar skill. As I remarked in my review of Stormsong, I totally ship Grace/Avia despite not generally appreciating romance in my books. The same goes for Robin/Zelind in this book. Polk depicts their devotion to each other while simultaneously showing the trauma of Zelind’s imprisonment and how it affects kher ability to have close relationships. While I can’t speak from personal experience regarding the verisimilitude of Zelind and Robin’s conflicts, it’s just nice to see conflict that doesn’t feel contrived for the sake of plot. I enjoyed watching them work through their issues even as they each work on projects that are of great social import.
I think the one part of the story that disappointed me was the disposition of the Amaranthines. After figuring so much in the previous book, they seemed more like shadows here. I had thought we would learn more about the Solace and what the Amaranthines wanted—maybe my reading was wrong, and their only concern was the souls that the Aelanders hadn’t allowed to enter the Solace. Even so, I would have liked to see more of these characters.
Overall, though, I have to say: this was a very satisfying experience, this book and the trilogy as a whole. This is some premium grade original fantasy, full of political themes, romance, and an excellent use of magic. I was just so satisfied devouring this book over the course of two days. Moreover, Soulstar is a satisfying end to this trilogy, leaving the story in a place where there is clearly more that needs to happen (there always is) but our main characters from the trilogy are on a new trajectory, and that’s wonderful. This is some of the best fantasy I have read in years.