Dr. Miles Singer is a military psychiatrist treating veterans of Aeland’s war with Laneer. He himself is hiding from his noble family, who would drag him back to use his magical talents as a mere battery and help prop up their power in Aeland. But when a stranger dies in Miles’ arms and begs Miles to find his killer, Miles’ two worlds collide. Soon there won’t be any secrets … but will the price be Miles’ independence? Or Aeland’s?
Witchmark hits a lot of the right spots. Polk has the knack for not bogging us down with infodumps. The result is a streamlined narrative—yet I never felt particularly lost. This is a world that feels comfortably different from our own, yet also very familiar. It isn’t directly analogous to a specific time or place, but it blends some familiar tropes and set-pieces of, say, Edwardian England alongside more magical inventions. Telephones and aetheric power, bicycles and pedal-cars and aetheric engines.
Miles is a competent protagonist trapped within the strictures of his society. He thought he had wriggled out, only to discover that his freedom was always contingent and, indeed, easily curtailed when the time came. But Miles also meets someone: Tristan, an otherworldly companion and soon-to-be lover. Together, they hope to get to the bottom of both the murder mystery and a wider-ranging mystery of Tristan’s—where are all the souls going? There’s a whole bunch of layers and nuance to the plot here. In addition to Miles and Tristan, Polk populates Witchmark with numerous secondary characters who all have distinctive personalities and traits. From the loyal Robin—about whom we learn some secrets that we never have time to delve deeper into, so I hope that comes up in the sequel—to the pragmatic Dr. Matheson to Miles’ sister, Grace, a curious mixture of naivete and political cunning. Oh, yes: this book has a plethora of women of all sorts of tempers and tenacity.
I also appreciate how Polk is willing to let distractions and setbacks plague Miles constantly. A good writer can keep the plot on track and at pace; a great writer knows how to keep the plot constantly going off track—yet somehow gets there in the end. Every time Miles and Tristan think they have a plan figured out or a new lead, something pops up to interfere—and I love it. The twists keep coming, but they always fold back into the original story. There’s a lovely balance between allowing the reader to read between the lines and figure things out in anticipation of the payoff and then genuine surprises or reveals that still leave you satisfied.
I don’t know; it’s hard to summarize how I feel about this book. Witchmark is not a simple or light read, despite being fairly thin. It touches on a lot of serious issues, not the least of which is slavery/indentured servitude. There are political machinations … yet there is also a very personal story of trying to retain one’s individual control over one’s destiny. This is a really deep, satisfying read.