Witch King by Martha Wells (book review).

Waking was like pulling free of a dark ocean. Confusing. Disorientating. How long had he been drifting? Kaiisteron, Prince of the Fourth House of the Underneath, comes back to awareness to find his body confined and powerless with a very following magician trying to enslave him. Defeating the mage and freeing one friend takes minutes, but where is the other?

Kai and his companion are forced to retrace steps that first took long ago as they freed half the world from the tyranny of the Hierarchs searching for their lost friend. Who trapped them? Who can they trust? Is their old enemy returning?

I know writer Martha Wells from the fabulous ‘Murderbot’ series, which you should read because it’s fabulous. ‘Witch King’ is an interesting mix of wildly different and interestingly familiar. The main difference is the genre. This is most definitely a fantasy novel with all the swords and sorcery a nerd could wish for. No elves, though. Instead, there is an almost appallingly well-detailed world that doesn’t pause for exposition and just plunges you right into the thick of things. Which I found very unexpected given that we start things off with a confused and slightly amnesiac protagonist. It would have been easy to have exposition disguised as someone telling Kai that state of the world but that would be too easy. There are many names and peoples, religions and magics, both past and present or both that may or may not be conspiring against Kai. It was overwhelming until I just let it wash past the central core of the story: Kai.

The similarity I find most familiar is Kai, our protagonist. Kai is a demon from a place literally called ‘underneath.’ His relatives have serpentine features such as snake tails instead of legs. He wears the body of a human almost like a suit with the only outward sign of his origin being his solid black eyes. Kai’s magic is fuelled with pain and he can suck the life from people and things and regularly does. Doesn’t that sound like a villain?

Now take Murderbot, the eponymous narrator of ‘The Murderbot Diaries’, a cyborg who has named themselves Murderbot. A part-human/part-robot security unit that hacked their own system to achieve independence. An uncontrolled rogue robot? That is the start of many a SF thriller.

Wells doesn’t let her readers settle for black and white or good and evil. Kai is not an anti-hero or a dark hero or villain. Kai is what he is, regardless of the body he’s wearing. The choices he makes and made during ‘Witch King’ are not shined up to make him a shining hero. Kai makes choices that alienate his own people from underneath as well as in the human realm. Others would see his actions differently. Is their old enemy bent on world domination for a greater cause the conquered do not know? Is the new regime that replaced them so perfect? As with ‘Murderbot’, Wells puts the reader in the place of an, on the surface at least, dangerous evil and asks us to question our snap judgements.

‘Witch King’ reminds me strongly of Tanya Huff’s 2022 novel ‘Into The Broken Lands’ with its half-present/half-past style of narrative in a fantasy world with a problematic, to some, ‘hero.’ The novels are not otherwise similar but they resonate on a similar frequency to my eyes. Fans of N.K. Jemisin’s ‘Broken Earth’ trilogy should give this one a try. Fans of the ‘Murderbot Diaries’ might actually be disappointed because ‘Witch King’ is not full of snarkly comedic asides and a desperate desire to watch the latest soap opera. Instead, it is a book you need to concentrate on and let yourself be immersed.

LK Richardson

June 2023

(pub: 432 page hardback. Price: $28.99 (US) £24.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-25082-679-4)

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