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Review of Witch King by

Witch King

by Martha Wells

3 out of 5 stars ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Reviewed .

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How did I not know Martha Wells has written a bunch of fantasy novels? Who has been concealing this from me? Sure, Murderbot has been fun and all, but hello? I cut my teeth on high fantasy. Put this directly in my veins, please.

Was my reaction, when I picked up Witch King and realized that, while it is a standalone fantasy novel, it is far from Wells’s first.

Kai is a demon from the underearth, trapped above when an enemy invasion cuts him off from his homeland. Decades have passed since Kai and a coalition defeated that enemy, and some among the new generation are hungry for power. Kai awakes, entombed in stone, murdered—and now he has to find out who wanted him dead, even temporarily, and what this might mean for the people he cares about the most.

I really love how Wells dumps us into the thick of it without too much exposition. Gradually we learn more of the lore behind demons and some of the other strange folx in this land. Other things—like exactly how the Immortal Blessed became immortal (or even blessed)—remain ambiguous for now. Although Kai and Ziede are joined by a couple of minor characters who could use some explanation, those characters never become significant enough to be audience stand-ins. Instead, Wells alternates between the present day and the past. In this way, two compelling narratives unfold in parallel, and it’s very satisfying.

Kai and Ziede are an iconic duo. They already have an easy, friendly partnership from the beginning. Wells has done something I have contemplated doing myself if I ever finally write a fantasy novel: start after the protagonist has defeated the Big Bad, and look at what happens from there. When Witch King begins, Kai’s brief moments of heroism are long behind him. Most of the people he knew from back then are dead. The others, like Ziede and Tahren, have moved on to other things. Kai is a relic, and he doesn’t crave power or influence (in fact, Wells is remarkably unforthcoming about how he spends his time these days). It isn’t until someone gets it into their heads to “get him out of the way” that he decides he has to be involved. I love this dynamic.

Additionally, there’s some great queernormativity in this world. Ziede and Tahren, of course—we don’t get to know Tahren as well, but she shines especially in the flashback chapters, with a dry sense of humour that reminds me a lot of Teal'c from Stargate SG-1. In Kai, much like with Murderbot, Wells gives us a protagonist whose gender is … complicated. Whereas Murderbot is agender, Kai is male (a Prince of the Fourth House, by the way), but he can possess human bodies of any gender. Indeed, his first vessel above ground was a young woman. Wells doesn’t fully explore the consequences of this incongruence for either Kai or those close to him, unfortunately.

Perhaps she simply couldn’t fit it in—this book is already packed to the brim! Nevertheless, that is something I would have liked to see more of, along with a better sense of the underearth and its connection to the human world. Kai mentions at one point that his true body in the underearth is no more, but it’s unclear how that happened, whether it’s a consequence of the Hierarchs severing the connection to the underearth while Kai was still above or something more nefarious. Finally, who are the Hierarchs? Where did they come from? Were they just the vanguard, or were they something else? They reminded me a bit of the Archons from the Far Kingdoms, or the Mein or Numrek from Acacia. So many questions!

It’s a testament to Wells’s skills as a storyteller that I don’t mind being left with so many questions. The Witch King is a deep novel and occasionally heavy—Kai carries with him the kind of trauma one only gets from living through and surviving a horrific war. Yet it is also a lot of fun. There is something roguish and likeable about Kai, Ziede, and their allies. Reading this book, going on this adventure with them, is a good time.

If I have any criticism, it’s simply that I wish the minor characters were developed a bit more. Sanja and Tenes are just sort of there for most of the book; I wish Wells had given them a little more to do. Likewise, the whole “oooh, is Ramad going to betray Kai?” subplot felt a bit tired and predictable, right up to the reveal of what Ramad is really doing there. The same goes for the Immortal and Lesser Blessed characters, their underlings, etc., who crop up to offer opposition to Kai and company. In the end, I know that Kai being on the periphery of world events is the point of the plot of the novel, so I can understand why we don’t spend as much time getting to know the bad guys and their evil scheme (without going into spoilers, suffice it to say that the problem Kai is investigating turns out to be more of a personal diversion than one with imperial consequences, and that is by design). Nevertheless, the fact remains that Wells introduces a great many named characters who never quite become more than one- or two-dimensional stock players in an otherwise very enjoyable play.

Witch King is weirder than you might expect yet also somehow exactly what it promises to be, and that’s cool. If you have enjoyed other books by Martha Wells, as I have, you’ll like this one. It has definitely made me want to pick up some of her other fantasy novels.


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