Not long after helping her brother Miles destroy the horrific magical enslavement system that formed the basis of their homeland’s success, Dame Grace Hensley stands at a crossroads. As Chancellor she is the top advisor to Queen Constantina of Aeland, as the Voice she leads the wealthiest and most powerful mages in the country, and as the sister of the man who is in a committed relationship with a high-ranking Amaranthine she understands exactly the damage the nobles and royals have caused. But the Queen refuses her counsel, the mages want to unseat her, her father is conspiring against her, the Amaranthines are ready to wield their harsh brand of justice, the citizens are clamoring for a revolution, and a meddling yet very attractive journalist is about to expose everything.
As all of these high-level issues swirl around her, two more pressing and tangible things take place: climate change and a murder. Before, the mages worked together to suppress Aeland’s weather to make it temperate and perfect for agriculture. Now the weather is back with a vengeance as it unleashes massive snow cyclone after massive snow cyclone. Only the help of the witches, most of whom are still locked up in asylums or in hiding, can save the nation. If the weather doesn’t take them out first, the Amaranthines might when they learn that a Laneeri diplomat under their protection has been killed under suspicious circumstances. To save Aeland, Grace may have to destroy it…but there are a lot of people who stand in her way.
If Witchmark is about sparking the revolution then Stormsong is about what comes next. Audre Lorde once said “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” Although she was speaking about women who refused to make room for intersectional feminism, the sentiment also applies to the running theme of Stormsong. In the first book, Polk asks the hard questions and in the second she answers. There are many who don’t like the questions and reject the answers, but we can’t expect the future to be better without examining the past and present.
It’s not often fantasy fiction gives us a story about process. Usually we see the revolution not the rebuilding. With her Kingston Cycle, Polk gives us both. Miles led the fight and now Grace must usher in the regulations. But while Lorde was right that we cannot dismantle the master’s house with his tools, neither can we use his tools to build a new one. Most of Stormsong is Grace learning that lesson the hard way as she tries and fails to appease her obstinate queen and her imprisoned father.
In my review of Witchmark, I talked about how similar Grace was to 19th century American abolitionists in that like Grace they were really only interested in ending slavery, not creating a racially equitable society. Stormsong continues that analogy by showing the empowered actively looking for ways to retain their control while pretending to seek progress. Aeland teeters on the fence between Reconstruction (when African Americans gained equal rights and had access to power and politics immediately after the Civil War) and Redemption (when, to paraphrase W.E.B. Dubois, African Americans stood a brief moment in the sun then moved back again toward slavery). Grace must reckon with her power and decide what she’s going to do with it. The Amaranthines want the witches and Laneeri freed, the Aelanders want democracy, and the ruling class want to go back to the way things were before Miles and Grace put a crack in the system. What does Grace want? For most of the novel even she’s not sure.
In the diversity, equity, and inclusion field we often talk about moving from actor to ally to accomplice. Very generally, an actor is someone who does not challenge the system, an ally interrupts the system and educates members of the majority who continue to uphold it, and an accomplice disrupts and obstructs the system by working directly with and for the oppressed. By Stormsong Grace has moved from actor to ally, but will she join Miles as an accomplice and try to build a new Aeland or will she stagnate at ally and try to patch up a flawed system?
What I find so fascinating about C.L. Polk’s Kingston Cycle is how layered it is. You can, as many have, read it as a cute queer romance (the first book is m/m and the second f/f) in a sweeping, vaguely historical setting. You can also read it as a dense fantasy series with hints of action-adventure and political thriller. Or you can read it like I did: as a subtle, sly commentary on the ways in which Western society relies on oppression and exploitation and what we can do as individuals to not just resist but rebel and reconstruct.
Tonally, Witchmark and Stormsong feel different, but structurally and thematically they parallel very well together. Like its predecessor, Stormsong is wonderfully written and teeming with characters that defy tropes and demand attention. I don’t know if we’ll ever be blessed with a third Kingston book or if this is the last we’ll see of Grace and Avia and Miles and Tristan. But if this really is goodbye, I trust that Aeland is in good hands.
Alex Brown is a teen services librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.