Review of Stormsong by C.L. Polk
by C.L. Polk
Apparently 3 years was too long to wait between reading Witchmark and Stormsong because I have forgotten pretty much everything that happened in the first book, oops! As I started Stormsong, I was very confused: who are all these people? Who are the Amaranthines, and why do they care about Aeland or Laneer? What’s going on? Nevertheless, I did my best to forge on and trust that C.L. Polk would do their best to deliver a good story to me even if I had already let their down.
So no “previously, in Witchmark” this time … instead, we pick up with our narrator, Grace Hemsley, arriving at the capital city of Aeland. She is not alone: she comes with a cohort of Amaranthines, legendary beings of power beyond even the mages that secretly raised Aeland into greatness with their use of aether. Grace and her brother Miles, along with his Amaranthine lover Tristan, destroyed the aether network because it was evil; it trapped the souls of poor Aelanders (and Laneeri) instead of letting them pass on to the Solace, the afterlife. This act has plunged Aeland, its power and transportation systems utterly dependent on aether, into disarray just as the worst storms of the winter bear down upon the country. Although Grace is initially arrested when she arrives in the capital, political machinations quickly reverse this and restore her to being the Queen’s Chancellor. In this position, Grace must walk the knife’s edge between pleasing the queen, satisfying the Amaranthine demands for justice for Laneer, and finding a way to free the imprisoned, oppressed witches of Aeland and save her country from a disaster she is at least partially responsible for making worse….
I got serious “white woman feminist” vibes from Grace almost immediately, and I am here for it. Grace stands at the nexus of great hereditary wealth and privilege, along with political power granted by royal decree. She is also a skilled mage. As a result, she is very insulated from the struggles of common Aelanders and from the witches with whom she shares magical abilities but not magical privileges. Grace clearly wants to “do the right thing.” But like so many people of privilege in our society (myself included), “the right thing” can be hard to discern. Grace proposes to her foil and sapphic love interest, Avia Jessup, that change must be incremental. This is pretty much exactly what white people, especially white women activists, have said to people of colour forever—we hear you, we hear your issues, but you need to give us time to change the system. Avia, Robin, and the others who lack Grace’s privilege don’t see it that way.
This is a theme Polk returns to throughout the book. There is a wonderful argument between Grace and Robin while the latter is doing an autopsy, and a similarly chilling discussion between Grace and Avia over breakfast at the former’s ancestral home. Avia in particular is such an interesting character, because she represents an extreme form of Grace—born into privilege, albeit much less than Grace’s, Avia literally gave it all up because she perceived the injustice of her position. Now, Polk isn’t trying to say that the only ethical decision is to divest oneself completely of all power—after all, it is clear that Grace can achieve good in her office. But I appreciate that Stormsong tackles this issue of the “white moderate” in such a compelling and poignant way.
Time and again, I was impressed with Polk’s choices and what they meant as the story unfolds. A lot of the plot was predictable, but Grace’s reactions weren’t always predictable. For example, at one point a character proposes marriage to her. I was really expecting it to go one way, but it goes the other instead—and the results to that choice weren’t what I was expecting at all. So even though I saw a lot of the plot coming from far off, there were still plenty of surprises and twists that made me enjoy the mystery and intrigue parts of this novel.
That’s really what this is at the end, of course: it’s a novel of political intrigue, and politically-motivated mysteries, that masquerades as a fantasy story. It has magic and magical beings, yes, but other than that it’s really about the unrest that accompanies social and technological change. It turned out to be exactly what I was looking for.
Also, I’m not huge on romance, yet Polk managed to totally get me shipping Grace and Avia. It helps that Grace delivers her father an ultimatum regarding Avia being off-limits—that’s delightfully overprotective in a not-toxic sense. But really, it’s their scenes together. Polk invests in these characters such chemistry that even I was cheering for them to be together. (No spoilers.)
Finally, I love how Polk hints that there is so much more happening that we don’t yet know. The Amaranthines are shady AF. They are supposedly “good guys” yet one of them is very clearly a glowering villain, and Grand Duchess Aife is obviously hiding something about the Solace from Grace. What is it? I guess I need to read Soulstar to find out, preferably before I completely forget this installment!