Welcome to Witchmark, C.L. Polk’s masterful debut about a magical Edwardian-esque world still reeling from a deadly world war. One of those battlefield survivors is Dr. Miles Singer. In the war he experienced terrible acts of violence, and perpetrated a few of his own. Now back home, he treats injured veterans at a local hospital. Did I say treat? I meant cure. With magic. Miles is a healer, although no one is supposed to know. Years before, he was a recalcitrant Secondary, a second-class mage destined to be magically bound to his magically superior sister. Grace is a Storm-Singer and she and the other elite mages use magic to keep Aeland temperate and fertile. But Miles ran away, escaped from a live of captivity and servitude. And he might have remained undiscovered if Nick Elliot hadn’t died in his arms.
Something terrible is driving vets to kill their loved ones, but what does it have to do with imprisoned witches and Nick’s bizarre travel habits? All of a sudden Miles is yanked into a murder mystery turned national conspiracy, with his very identity at stake. Helping him is Tristan Hunter, a charming, enigmatic man who, like Miles, is far more than he lets on. As the two men grow closer, Miles’ family threatens to rip them apart. In order to save the world, he might just have to destroy it.
From the beginning, Miles, Tristan, Robin, and Grace feel like characters you’ve known for years. It’s not that they’re tropes—far from it—but that Polk is just that good at creating characters that feel fully fleshed out. For me, the hallmark of strong character development is being able to imagine them all living their lives outside the events of the novel. And given how much I’ve been daydreaming about Miles and Tristan lately, Polk more than succeeded.
Their talents at worldbuilding are equally as impressive. Aeland and its inhabitants felt real. The magic is well-explained and interestingly explored, as is the social hierarchy. What with everything that eventually goes down, I’m pleasantly surprised at how well Polk was at quickly and thoroughly establishing a comprehensible world to ensure it all makes sense. Polk doesn’t give that much in the way of physical description, but the words and phrases they choose give the reader everything they need to sink into the story.
And the romance, oh, the romance! Miles and Tristan have an easy rapport, but there are complicated layers of their relationship. Their passion is sweeping and sweet, with just a touch of sadness. Tristan is a fascinating character. Besides his entertaining personality, who he really is puts him in an awkward position with Miles.
But what pushes Witchmark from very good to great are the deep undercurrents. This isn’t just a story about cool magic and those who abuse it. Under the surface is a painful discussion of slavery, exploitation, and colonialism. Aeland is a wealthy land with idyllic weather. Most never think about where that success comes from, and at whose expense. Miles understands the high cost to keep Aeland powerful, but is privileged enough that there are exploitative aspects even he doesn’t notice until it’s too late.
This is a bit out of left field, but Grace reminds me a lot of 19th century abolitionists. Although they fought for an end to slavery, they weren’t interested in civil rights or equity. Likewise, Grace feels guilty about profiting off a system where her brother and other secondaries must surrender their freedom and become a living battery for her and her ilk, but not enough to actually stop it. Privilege is relative, but power can only be gained or lost. Those with all the power cannot acknowledge that those below them might be like them without admitting the whole system is flawed. Do you know what the early triggers for the Civil Rights Movement were? African Americans coming home after helping the Allies win WWII—a war in which they were shunted into the worst jobs possible—only to be forced back into Jim Crow. Hell, we fought a civil war over our obsession with brutal exploitation. Which is why it doesn’t matter that some Secondaries may be more powerful than Storm-Singers or have valuable wartime skills. Miles said it best: “I want freedom, and so you want to chain me, to teach the others they should be like me… You’ll always need more power, Grace… However nobly you intend to use it, you’ll always need more.” I mean, if that isn’t a metaphor for the dumpster fire of a world we live in today, I don’t know what is.
As satisfying as Witchmark is, there are three weak areas, both related to minor characters. The first is, I hate to say, Nurse Robin. She doesn’t get nearly enough screentime. In an interview with the LA Public Library, Polk talked about how Robin’s role was substantially cut down after rewrites, and it shows. Robin gets just enough attention to make it clear she’s important, but that importance never really goes anywhere. Same goes for a late-game antagonist at the hospital. There’s all this built up tension between him and Miles culminating in a serious confrontation, but nothing comes of it. I’m not convinced he was necessary to the plot, especially when it took away valuable space from Robin. The enemy Laneeri are just as underdeveloped. They haunt the edges of the story but never get quite enough focus to mean much. But at the end of the day, these are three very small quibbles barely marring a delectable tale.
If Tor.com had a rating system, I’d give Witchmark 10 out of 5 stars. I loved it that much, y’all. Every single second of it was glorious. It was so good I was literally dreading finishing it. I actually set it down for a good week because every time I picked it up I remembered how close I was to the end of watching Tristan and Miles be adorable. And even though I finally did finish, I’ve already gone back to read bits and pieces several times. It may only be June, but I can safely say this is my favorite book of the year. If the sequel—Stormsong coming July 2019!—is even half as good, I’ll be happy.
Alex Brown is a YA librarian by day, local historian by night, pop culture critic/reviewer by passion, and QWoC all the time. Keep up with their every move on Twitter, check out their endless barrage of cute rat pics on Instagram, or follow along with their reading adventures on their blog.