Representation: Brown cast, secondary F/F
PoV: Third-person, past-tense
Published on: 30th May 2023
"I didn't know you were a... demon."
"You idiot. I'm the demon."
Kai's having a long day in Martha Wells' WITCH KING....
After being murdered, his consciousness dormant and unaware of the passing of time while confined in an elaborate water trap, Kai wakes to find a lesser mage attempting to harness Kai’s magic to his own advantage. That was never going to go well.
But why was Kai imprisoned in the first place? What has changed in the world since his assassination? And why does the Rising World Coalition appear to be growing in influence?
Kai will need to pull his allies close and draw on all his pain magic if he is to answer even the least of these questions.
He’s not going to like the answers.
I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
~‘misfits adopt random orphan’ is a trope I will never not love
~women ready to burn the world down to get their wives back
~pain-magic packs one hell of a punch
~ghost-ships that don’t know they’re ghosts
~family means a lot of different things
~‘I’m the demon’ indeed!
~anti-imperialist heroes FTW
Witch King is a story spun out of silk: endlessly soft, smooth and flowing, richly coloured. Quiet as silk is quiet; and surprisingly, impossibly strong, as silk secretly is. Luxurious even when plain; unembroidered, because it does not need to be. Its quality speaks for itself.
It is a masterpiece.
Not the kind we’re used to. As I said; it’s soft, and quiet. This is not a tale of clashing armies and Dark Lords that need overthrowing. There is a quest of sorts, but not the kind you’re thinking of. The battles are more like skirmishes, even if some of them are devastating. World-changing.
Witch King is the story of what happens when the world-changing adventures are over; what does the world do with its heroes, when it decides it doesn’t need them anymore? Intertwined is an earlier timeline, letting us trace the thread of how, exactly, our main character became capital-k Known – but it stops where most stories are just getting going. Wells carefully, deliberately avoids what most of us would think of as the real story, the big story, the dramatic and cinematic war against evil – we see its beginning and its aftermath, but not the war itself, not really.
It’s puzzling, and fascinating, and here, for this book, this story, it is also exactly right. Witch King is not a sweeping, grandiose epic; it is a smaller story, and because it is small it feels more human, more real, more believable. Like something you could reach out and touch, if you could just work out the right magic for slipping your fingers past the print and paper. Because it is a story woven out of human connections and human moments it is easy to grasp, easy to fall into; you come to care about the characters quickly and completely, because they are people, not characters.
People with extremely impressive skill-sets, yes. But still people.
Kai leaned on the rail, concentrating on being enigmatic and not looking as if he was frantically trying to come up with alternate plans
(I do not mean to suggest that Witch King is cosy, or that the stakes are low. Neither of those things are true. But even during the fights, I found it oddly peaceful. Maybe because it pulled me so completely out of my world and into Kai’s; it’s been a while since any book had me this subsumed in its story. Every time I stepped away from Witch King was like surfacing from deep water, like taking a breath I didn’t know I needed – but it was also disorientating; it took me minutes to adjust to this world again, after being so deep in Kai’s.)
If you zoom out a little, and look at the big picture Wells is painting, then this is a story of a group of people – allies who become friends who become family – who pulled their nations together to fight off an indisputably evil empire…and now have to stop that Alliance from becoming a new empire.
(It probably wouldn’t be as terrible a one as their old enemies were. But empires never work out – I say that as someone with a UK passport – especially for the ones being devoured by and into said empire, and our characters know this. Kai and his companions are fiercely, passionately pro-independence for everyone, which is a philosophy I can definitely get behind – and so they are not going to let this happen.)
You might expect this to be fairly grim and cynical, but it isn’t. Kai and co definitely feel betrayed, and oh boy are they pissed, but there is never any sense of futility, of why-even-try, of the despair of having to fight the same fight again. For one, because it’s not the same fight, not at all: there is no genocidal enemy army on their doorstep this time (thank all the gods). And two, because Kai and co are just…not like that. The book opens with Kai and the absolutely amazing Zeide confused and angry and somewhat scared, but from the get-go there is the very clear sense that they are both people who will never lie down and give up; not so much ruthless – they have strict moral codes – but endlessly determined, and maybe even more importantly, capable. They are world-wise and street-smart and they know – they know – exactly what they are capable of, and that there is nothing the world can throw at them that they cannot handle.
“I’m starting to think that a mortal Prince-heir who wanted to consort with a demon in human form may not be a completely trustworthy person.”
Is it obvious that I adore them???
And then we switch to the older timeline, and it is such a startling but wonderful contrast: by the time we see Kai’s past we are used to him being the unstoppable Witch King, so the sudden pivot to his younger, more innocent self is a lot. Past!Kai was definitely someone who, when pushed past his breaking point, was trapped in despair. (For very, very good reasons. I would have despaired too, if I’d been in his position.) And yet Wells wields her words so deftly that I was never left feeling like past!Kai and present!Kai weren’t the same person; it was so easy to see how the one grew into the other.
The answer came back on an eddy in the current: Why should I trust?
Always a good question. Kai replied, I wore chains once, too. He sent the whale an image, a memory, of the old Cageling Demon Court in the Summer Halls of the Hierarchs, how he had huddled there with diamond chains around his throat and wrists, the perpetual rain soaking his ragged clothes, searing his skin.
What we get, what we see, is his origin story, in a way; the painful journey that is him…not so much finding himself as finding his feet, realising his own strength, his own potential, his own capabilities. And we don’t need to see more than that. We don’t need to see him decimating battlefields, because it’s so very clear that he could; that he will; that he did. It would have been redundant for Wells to have actually written the war-parts. And Witch King feels perfectly complete without them. I would absolutely love to have seen more of Kai’s world, and I desperately hope Wells comes back to this verse eventually, but the story told here is perfectly self-contained. We see, are shown, experience everything that we need to and not one bit more. It’s an incredibly elegant efficiency of storytelling that I’ll be mulling over for years.
“Stop being overdramatic.”
Kai would love to, if dramatic things would stop happening to him.
Although both timelines in the book have huge implications for the Big Picture story, Witch King feels more tightly focussed on the Small Picture; you have to zoom out to comprehend the prevent-a-new-empire plotline because the view we have is so zoomed in. At its heart, Witch King is intimate and personal, something small and precious and held close. This novel is a snapshot, a magnifying glass held over a quiet corner, a story woven together out of human connections rather than grand destinies. The driving force of the present-day plot is less ‘we must stop the coalition from becoming an empire’ and more ‘where is our friend’ – it just so happens that the latter is vital to achieving the former; Tahren Stargard, Kai’s friend and Zeide’s wife, is a very important member of the Rising Worlds coalition, and necessary for the renewal of the alliance. So yes, technically, they’re doing a Big Epic Thing – their actions will help prevent a new empire from rising – but the motivations feel much more personal.
Which is definitely on purpose; by ignoring (for the most part) the wider world and zooming in so tightly on a small handful of characters, Wells humanises them in a way few epic fantasy writers can – because Witch King is wholly made up of the kind of small human moments most of us would never think to include or see in an epic fantasy story. Kai discovers a game-changing power because of a moment of simple, fearless curiosity from someone who has every reason to fear him; a small overture of compassion is the beginning of the alliance that will bring down their great enemies; the forging, loss, and creation of new family bonds changes the course of history. The devil (or demon) is in the details, and the details are tiny, the kind that never make it into the history books but which we know from our own experiences can be life-changing.
Think of the teacher who took a chance on you, the stranger who asked if you were okay, the coworker who covered for you just because. All of us, I hope, have experienced those moments, and Wells has built her epic fantasy out of them, and the idea of it alone would be breathtaking even if the execution wasn’t fucking flawless.
Is everyone going to love this book? No – especially those who go in thinking it’s going to be something it’s not. I’m really worried that readers who only know Wells from Murderbot will be confused and upset by how absolutely not-Murderbot it is, and I suspect even some fans of epic fantasy will feel cheated by a story that does not do what we expect epic fantasy to do. And even I, who am passionately declaring this not just a Best Book of 2023 but also a new all-time favourite of mine, will admit that Witch King left me pining to see more of the incredible world Wells has created here than the small corner of it she showed us.
And yet – as someone who fell in love with Wells’ fantasy as a teenager, and has been following her career ever since – as someone who adores Murderbot and reveres Wheel of the Infinite and would really like to wake up as a Raksura tomorrow, please-and-thank-you – I think this is Martha Wells at her best. Prose, plot, themes, characters, worldbuilding – they all shine like flawlessly cut jewels, a parure of perfection. This is a book that makes your heart happy, that steals your breath away, that fills you with so much hope for people and for the world. I love it. There is nothing else like it. I will treasure it always.
If you are looking for unconventional, beautiful, character-driven fantasy – if you walk into Witch King with your eyes and heart open – I genuinely believe you’ll find a new all-time favourite waiting for you too.