Witchmark, by début author C. L. Polk, is an intriguing blend of history, science fiction, fantasy and romance. In Aeland, a fictionalized Edwardian England, aristocratic families use their magical gifts to keep a stranglehold on the power and wealth of the nation, whilst relegating anyone outside their sphere of power to a life of slavery, an asylum, or death.
Sir Christopher Hensley was born into the aristocracy, but as a ‘Secondary’, he was unwilling to bind himself to his sister and amplify her power as a Storm-Singer; he fled his family and went to war instead. When Witchmark begins, Sir Christopher has hidden his magical powers, reinventing himself as Dr. Miles Singer, a physician and psychiatrist at Beauregard Veterans Hospital. As Miles, he’s careful to hide his magical skills (his ‘tricks’) as a healer from patients and staff, but veterans of the war between Aeland and Laneer are returning home with mysterious, violent homicidal rages – strangers to their families and friends – and Miles is desperate to understand why.
His investigation gains urgency after a fatally poisoned man is brought to the hospital asking for him. The man, accompanied by the handsome stranger who found him, somehow knows of Miles’ healing gift and his Witchmark. He tells Miles he’s been poisoned and begs him to find the killer. When Miles returns to investigate the following day, the body is gone. He reluctantly teams up with Tristan Hunter, the stranger who brought the dying man to the hospital, and they eventually discover a sinister link between the dying man and his patients. As Miles and Tristan (who has important secrets of his own) work together to find the killer – who always seems to be one step ahead of them – secrets, family loyalties, and betrayals plague them at every turn.
AAR staffers Em Wittmann (a novice fantasy reader) and Shannon Dyer (who reads the genre regularly) both read Witchmark and are here to share their thoughts.
EBW: When I read the blurb for Witchmark, I couldn’t wait to read it. Unfortunately, the author assumes her readers already understand why Miles is hiding his magic. I didn’t! Later on we learn that because he’s a Secondary, he would have been forced to into a life of servitude to his sister (essentially functioning as a battery), and the author illustrates what that life is like, but I felt like a primer or prologue to the Witchmark world would have been supremely helpful. I struggled to empathize with the character and his secrets until I understood why he was keeping them – and even then, I don’t understand whether he was a witch or a mage, or why his sister was a Storm-Singer. Did you?
SD: I agree with you that a prologue or some other kind of introduction would have been useful. Fortunately, I did manage to catch on quickly to the reasons behind Miles’ desire to keep his magic a secret. However, I’m still not sure I understand the distinction between witches and mages. Perhaps it has something to do with social class, but that’s just a guess on my part.
EBW: I don’t understand the distinction either – or for that matter, why someone is a Storm-Singer and not also a witch or a mage? I guessed birth order – but Miles is the older sibling. And it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with gender either. I rarely tsk over editing/vetting – but in this case, I think the editor should have caught this problem and encouraged the author to elaborate on the magical hierarchy. Since the series is predicated on Miles and magic, not understanding Aeland and its hierarchy is a major downfall of this novel. I was frustrated from the first page, and found it challenging to enjoy the other elements of the story because of it.
SD: I found some of the parallels between the fictional world the author created and the world you and I are actually living in to be quite intriguing. True, our lives aren’t touched by magic, but we do deal with racism and other forms of hatred on a pretty regular basis. Were there things about the world that reminded you of real life, or did this feel like total fantasy to you?
EBW: The parallels are intriguing – and timely! Look at how our veterans are treated today. So many are suffering from various forms of PTSD, but the amount of money invested in helping them is a pittance compared to what’s poured into our military and defense budgets. Waging war is big business; treating our veterans is a sideshow.
I liked how familiar the world felt and how easy it is to envision the world in which Miles lives – but again, since magic is the differentiator, I wish it played a bigger role in the story.
SD: You make some very good points here.
Now, Let’s talk about the mystery for a bit. I found it to be quite captivating. I wanted Miles and Tristan to get to the bottom of things, and when they did, I was surprised by how things turned out. I obviously don’t want to give anything away, but did you find the mystery satisfying? Are you glad the author chose to weave it into the plot?
EBW: I was intrigued by the mystery and the connection to the dead man. I also wanted Miles and Tristan to find his killer – but I had a hard time accepting Miles willingness to partner up with Tristan based on little more than a chance meeting over a dying man. Their easy, fast partnership felt very contrary to the secret life Miles is living. The climax of their investigation had me quickly turning pages to get to the secret behind the dying man, and I thought the explanation for the murder worked in the context of the story. Unfortunately, everything about their investigation and the climactic scene with the deceased’s mother was a bit too easy breezy. Also, Miles FLED his family, but he seems awfully willing to believe the best of them once they reappear in his life. Why? He went TO THE FRONT LINE OF WAR to be free of them, but based on little more than a conversation, he willingly makes himself vulnerable to subjugation once again. PUHLEEZE.
SD: The thing with his family was really strange for me as well, especially the way he related to his sister. He was understandably against being bound to her, but he didn’t seem too eager to get her out of his life once she reappeared.
EBW: Can we talk about the relationship between Tristan and Miles for a bit? I liked both men. They liked each other. You were okay with their insta-lust and devotion to each other based on very little time in each other’s company? I liked them as a crime solving duo – with the chance of something developing later in the series. I didn’t like how their storyline ended. The suspense/mystery was enough for me in this first volume.
SD: I think we interpreted the relationship in two different ways. Miles and Tristan have a pretty strong attraction to one another, and they definitely took steps to act on that attraction. However, the end of the book left me with the impression that their relationship would continue to develop over time. Instalove is a big deal in a lot of fantasy series, so maybe I’ve just become accustomed to it since fantasy makes up a very large part of my reading life.
EBW: I want to tell you I loved this fictional mash-up of WWI era historical, science fiction/fantasy, and (a very subtle) queer romance, but I didn’t. However, I was intrigued. The idea behind the novel is great, the principal characters are compelling, and the murder mystery that sets the series in motion is clever and interesting, but the execution is poor. There simply isn’t enough exposition to explain the events as they unfold, and readers are forced to simply ‘go along with it,’ to keep moving through the story. The romance between the principal characters – really, it’s a friendship that abruptly transitions into a love affair – is underdeveloped, and – gasp – unnecessary. My final grade is a C+.
SD: I actually don’t agree. I found myself caught up in the story. I found the relationship between Miles and Tristan to be quite sweet. True, the novel could have used some more careful editing, perhaps some tightening up, but overall, it’s a book I’m happy I read. I’d give it a B.