Martha Wells, of All Systems Red fame, is putting out a new stand-alone book about witches, kings, and murder. Everything in that sentence excited me, and I could not wait to get my hands on this new story about an amnesia-riddled demon on a quest for truth. The book turned out to be very different from what I expected, but many of life’s greatest gifts come from unexpected places. Is this strange new story a hit or a miss? Read on to find out.
It’s hard to talk about the full plot of Witch King without spoiling some of the fun, but in broad strokes, the story is about Kai’s no-good-very-bad day (he was violently murdered) and a trip down memory lane (most of which are memories of Kai being violently murdered). Kai is a demon that can jump from hell into the bodies of willing mortals on Earth to become a witch. As such he’s functionally immortal but it is still super annoying when he gets knocked off. Our story begins with Kai waking up from a year-long blackout and not understanding how someone almost murdered him for realsies. Thus he begins a quest to track down what happened to his body, his squad of mage friends, and current events. While he is on this journey of discovery, he spends a lot of time reminiscing on the events that lead to the current status quo.
Witch King is an odd book that feels like it’s going in one direction (action-oriented revenge quest) for the first 100 pages and then veers off into a completely different direction (thick political intrigue epic fantasy) for the next 300. It is a beautifully written poetic epic that paints a lovely picture of a rich world staffed by interesting people and a tense theater of conflict. As we turn over stones and branches a fascinating conflict between immortals and men comes into the picture. Kai is a great protagonist, with a storied past that slowly comes to life and a very unique mentality informed by his strange immortality. He is a fascinating character and I really enjoyed the time I spent in his head as he pulls at the strands of his question.
Witch King has the aura of a much bigger book, but this has advantages and disadvantages. The dual directions of the book I mentioned before give the story a strained feeling. It seems like it’s pulling apart at the seams as different foci compete for the center of your attention. The pacing starts fast and exciting, but then immediately slows to a more methodical pace that requires close reading and much thought to follow everything that’s happening. I originally wanted to map out all the factions at play in this review, but mapping out the factions is kinda the entire point of the book. Reading Witch King is taking a map someone has crumpled up and slowly spreading it out and flattening the creases until it is legible again. The book has a much bigger focus on the past than I thought it was going to given the first section, but this is very much a retroactive story about history.
While I loved Kai and his entire vibe, his quest for the truth left a little to be desired. The mystery itself doesn’t disappoint, but too much of the book is devoted to Kai simply rearranging the facts that he has without any new information. Witch King spends too much time in Kai’s mind asking “What could it mean?” without any progress to an answer. The reflections on the unknown don’t feel meaningful or contemplating, they feel like random flailing against a Rubik’s Cube hoping the pattern works itself out. Over and over Kai asks the same questions of the reader and what starts as captivating mysteries slowly becomes the annoying repetition of a child asking “Why?” every five seconds.
Witch King is certainly a vibe. Wells has made a very unique book that tries a number of fun ideas that have a mixed success rate. But, Kai is an amazing protagonist, and the world contained in this story is layered and nuanced. Witch King could benefit from a little pruning in some places and fleshing out in others, but it is still one of the most original and interesting reads of the year.
Rating: Witch King – 7.0/10
An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.