Why You Need to Read: “Witchmark”

The Kingston Cycle: Book One: Witchmark

By: C.L. Polk

Published: June 19, 2018

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, LGBTQ, Mystery, Gaslamp, Military Fantasy

            “She gave no outward sign of her effort, but her Secondary’s knees sagged as she took as much of his strength as she pleased. I shuddered. That would have been me, if I hadn’t escaped. Nothing but a Storm-Singer’s minion, my own gifts dismissed as useless,” (Chapter Two).

            2018 was an immense year for the speculative fiction community. Several novels novellas, short stories, graphic novels, etc. were released, read, and enjoyed by fans and critics alike. In fact, so many works of the genre were released that it was difficult to keep up with all of the new releases. Luckily, recommendations and award nominations forces readers to catch up. That being said, I’m glad I got to read and to rate C.L. Polk’s Witchmark. This novel is one of many that I didn’t get to read when it was released in 2018.

            Dr. Miles Singer—the protagonist—is a psychiatrist and a veteran of the war that just ended between Aeland and Laneer. He is making his rounds when a man stumbles into the hospital carrying a man who claims he’s been poisoned. The dying man—Nick Elliot—calls Dr. Singer, “Starred One” and “Sir Christopher,” then transfers his power to Miles before dying. All of this happens in front of the man who brought Nick Elliot into the hospital—Tristan Hunter. Dr. Singer is worried that his cover is blown and his true identity—Sir Christopher Miles Hensley—is known to both strangers, one of whom is now dead. Dr. Singer and Tristan Hunter must explore the societal world of Aeland in order to solve the mystery of Nick Elliot’s death and what’s causing the hallucinations in the veterans at the hospital. It is revealed that Dr. Miles Singer is from a powerful family of magicians; except, he didn’t inherit the powers of a “mage.” Instead, Miles is a “witch”; he has a lesser power and it is believed, even by him, that all he’s good for is to be a “Secondary,” or an enslaved magical source for mages. Miles—knowing it was either enslavement, or commitment to a witches’ asylum—ran away from home and joined the army, where he used his healing power to become a doctor. Nick Elliot’s death reveals that Miles’ life is in jeopardy. Tristan Hunter is an Amaranthine, a celestial being with more power than any witch or mage. He was sent by his Royal Court to solve a mystery that is tied to Nick Elliot’s murder. During this investigation, Miles is recognized by his younger sister, Grace, who is both a mage and the heir to their family’s legacy, and Miles’ “Superior.” Grace needs Miles’ help to secure an election so that she can make reforms for Secondaries like him. Of the three characters, it is Grace who develops the most and it’s because of all of the revelations uncovered by the trio. This unraveling of political conspiracies presents the corruption and the fear that led to Miles fleeing his previous life. Yet, it is more than Miles, Tristan, and Grace knew about beforehand. 

            The plot involves a mystery within this fantasy story. Nick Elliot knew he was dying, and he sought out Dr. Miles Singer. In his last moments Nick Elliot says, “They needed the souls,” and transfers his power and his soul to Miles. Tristan Hunter is from another realm and he’s trying to solve the mystery of these lost souls. Miles, in keeping with appearances, attends a dinner in which he is reacquainted with his sister, Grace, who thought he was dead. Miles now has to solve a mystery, stay away from his family to avoid bondage, and make sure that none of his patients become mass murderers due to their PTSD. Meanwhile, sparks fly between Miles and Tristan, which is an issue. Not because of the homosexuality—the magic world is open to all forms of sexuality—but because relationships between mages and witches, and Amaranthines are taboo. The romance is as beautiful as it is described by the author and is appropriate for an alternative Edwardian English society. Even though this is a fantasy, the mystery is central to the plot of the novel. In other words, Witchmark is a mystery novel set in a fantasy world. Once this is comprehended by the reader(s), then the plot begins to make more sense and continues at an appropriate pace. Besides the romance, the societal world of Aeland is the subplot of this novel. The author wants the reader to know that the magic world is just as power hungry, corrupt, and prejudice as the human world. And, similar to other subplots in other novels, this subplot will not be resolved by this novel’s end but will become ubiquitous to everyone living in those societies. The denizens have to decide whether or not it should be resolved. 

            The narrative follows Miles’ P.O.V. Throughout the novel, Miles’ feelings and emotions about his past, his family his career, his choices, and his love for Tristan presents the narrative to be stream-of-consciousness. All of Miles’ thoughts, fears, and knowledge is presented to the reader. It is through him that the readers learn about the setting, the magic world and its rules, and the multiple conflicts. Miles being a victim of his family’s and society’s abuse make him both a sympathetic and a reliable narrator. The fact that Miles uncovers more of what has been happening in secret as he unravels Nick Elliot’s murder and the horrors that lead up to it allows the readers to have a mirrored reaction to Miles’. As long as readers remember that the novel is both fantasy and mystery, the narrative is easy to follow. 

            The style of writing C.L. Polk uses makes her debut novel captivating. First, incorporating PTSD in the veterans of the war provides realism to the readers. Miles being a psychiatrist during an era in which both the medical community and public society chastised such notions surrounding mental health and war veterans is commendable. Next, magic systems and hierarchy are part of both the plot and the mystery in this story. Secondaries being seen as a source for magic for mages provides a different outlook on magic and its societal norms. Polk’s tone of this “magic system” reflects English history and how they always felt they had to conquer another group of people in order to feel powerful. The mood within the novel illustrate why Miles—and other Secondaries—fled their homes. This magic world is as corrupt and stringent as ours, but with harsher abuses of power. Last, Polk’s writing is as much of a political statement as it is an immersive fantasy story. And, magical gifts are as essential as the witch, or the mage who wields it.

            The appeal surrounding Witchmark is well-deserved. Polk does an amazing job of combining history, psychology, mystery and romance into this all-around fantasy novel. It’s been nominated for several literary awards including the 2019 Nebula Award for Best Novel and the 2019 Lambda Literary, or Lammy, Award for Best LGBTQ SF/F/Horror (Book). This lets speculative fiction fans know that this book should be read. The follow-up to Witchmark, Stormsong, will pick up where the last novel left off. This will let readers—who are interested—know whether or not the author will build-up on her world. I hope she does because it will let us know what happens next. Witchmark is an amazing addition to the literary canon! 

            C.L. Polk’s debut novel is a multi-genre text that can be read and enjoyed by readers, and not just fantasy fans. Witchmark provides a beautiful romance readers of all sexualities can relate to including the numerous mentions of marriage. The balance between fantasy and mystery presents Witchmark as a unique reading experience to everyone who reads it. The characters, the plot, the narrative, the setting, and the style fit together as you continue reading the story. You will find this book to be as enjoyable as I did, with the reminder that magic is what the user makes of it.

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!

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Why You Need to Read: “Aurora Rising”

The Aurora Cycle: #1: Aurora Rising

By: Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

Published: May 7, 2019

Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction

            “Scarlett Jones (diplomat) introduces the other members of our squad. ‘Tyler Jones, our commander. Zila Madran, science officer. Finian de Seel. Engineer. Catherine Brannock, pilot. And finally, Kaliis Idraban Gilwraeth, combat specialist’.” (Chapter 7, Kal).

            I’ve always been curious to read stories by authors who write multiple genres of literature. Jay Kristoff has written several amazing stories within the sub-genres in both the fantasy and the science fiction genres. Now, he’s back with a new series with Amie Kaufman—who co-wrote The Illuminae Files with Kristoff—to present us with Aurora Rising, the first book in The Aurora Cycle. Jay Kristoff has described the series as a cross between The Breakfast Club and The Guardians of the Galaxy, which piques a reader’s curiosity. 

            This series is different from many other ones in that the story occurs after the characters graduate from school. Aurora Academy is a military school for future space cadets; and, after they graduate, there is a draft in which the top commanders get to pick their crew members for their first set of missions. Tyler Jones, who is The Top of his Class, missed the draft because he decided to explore a restricted section of a dimension—The Fold—used for space travel, stumbled upon a ship that was lost over 200 years ago, and rescued its only survivor—a girl who is the same age as him, technically. The good news is that his twin sister, Scarlett—who is a trained diplomat—and their best friend, Cat Brannock—a pilot nicknamed “Zero”—bail on the draft in order to join his crew. Unfortunately, those who make up the rest of Tyler’s crew—the science officer, the engineer, and the combat specialist—are the ones no one else wanted in their crew: an aloof girl with a trigger finger, a handicapped boy with a motormouth, and an ostracized male whose species is in the midst of a civil war and he’s not fighting in it. Then, there’s Aurora Jie-Lin O’Malley—or Auri—the girl who slept in cyro for over 200 years, who awakens with mystical powers and with the top intergalactic police forces deeming her a criminal and are attempting to arrest her. Meet Squad 312! All of these characters have flaws and with them being 17 years-old, they don’t know how to deal with their insecurities, which make all of these characters more relatable and more believable. 

            Both the plot and the narrative are told in the point-of-views of all 7 characters! Multiple P.O.V.s are NOT new for YA books, for it allows for both character development and plot development. For example, Tyler is a leader, who jumps to conclusions surrounding his crew members—with the exception of his sister—and he would rather follow orders than question them. Kal’s species is in the middle of a civil war and he must choose between serving his tenure with Squad 312 or leaving to participate in the war. Then, there’s Auri, who is dealing with being out-of-time and understanding what is happening to her. 

            The author’s style reminds readers of the reality of space travel. While it’s exciting, it’s dangerous and requires training and knowledge in order to endure it. Auri almost dies after spending over 200 years in cryostasis; Kal’s people are decimating each other in a civil war, which broke a treaty, which had dire consequences; and, an intergalactic coverup is the real threat to the universe. Both the mood and the tone match what Kaufman and Kristoff are exploring in this series: space is vast, mysterious, and archaic. Add an element of danger that is as realistic as space travel and you have a story told by these authors. Both authors do an excellent job illustrating the differences between the star students and the outcasts. However, school is out, and so are the treatments they were all used to receiving. Both the mood and the tone display the need for these characters to become the adults they need to be!

            The appeal surrounding Aurora Rising will be a positive one, and I say this because there are adolescent readers who are sci-fi fans, who have been craving for a new book series about space explorers who are kids like themselves! In response, Kaufman and Kristoff have come up with a trilogy that reflects the Star Trek series. Young readers will enjoy this novel because the characters are kids who just graduated from school and have to deal with the reality of the “real” world/universe. Adult readers will enjoy this book because it will remind them of how they were like after completing school and continuing on with life. The truth within the fiction is what will appeal to readers the most. And yes, I’m already looking forward to the second book in this series!

            Aurora Rising is a fun sci-fi book that presents the collaboration of two authors to readers who are both familiar and unfamiliar with them. While both the character development and the world-building are well done, the plot leaves more questions than answers, which means there will be a follow up to this book, obviously. Yet, the story is entertaining enough for readers to want more from this trilogy. 

My rating: Enjoy it (4 out of 5). 

Why You Need to Read: “The City of Brass”

The Daevabad Trilogy: Book 1: The City of Brass

By: S.A. Chakraborty

Published: November 14, 2017

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction

            “Nahri had spent her entire life trying to blend in with those around her just to survive. Those instincts were warring even now: her thrill at learning what she was and her urge to flee back to the life she’d worked so hard to establish for her Cairo,”(Chapter 3). 

            I read S.A. Chakraborty’s first novel, The City of Brass, after its sequel, The Kingdom of Copper, was released in January 2019. The good news is that I enjoyed this novel, and the better news is I don’t have to wait to read the second book! This is a magical story that starts in Egypt and travels to a hidden kingdom in the Middle East.

            Nahri is a con woman with a magical intuition who is surviving on the streets of Cairo during its occupation of the Ottoman Empire. Hoping to become a trained healer, Nahri takes jobs “healing customers” while conning them. However, during one of her jobs, Nahri not only reveals her magical aptitude to herself, but also summons a djinn warrior named Dara, who whisks her out of Egypt to the kingdom of Daevastana, where she’ll be safe from enemies, or so they both believe. Meanwhile, Prince Alizayd al Qahtani of Daevastana is scheming behind his father’s back by aiding the poor Shafits, whom are being harmed and mistreated throughout the kingdom. Ali’s intentions are good, but he is naïve both in royal politics and in the truth surrounding the anger of the indentured population. When Nahri and Dara arrive in Daevabad, Ali must quash his ambitions in order to protect his family. Both Nahri and Ali must learn how to navigate and to cope with both their identities and their responsibilities to themselves and to those who rely on them—Nahri to the Daeva and Ali to his family. In the middle of all the impending drama is Dara—short for Darayavahoush e-Afshin—who has an interesting history with both Nahri’s and Ali’s ancestors. 

            The plot is about power, both political and magical. Nahri goes from being a thief to becoming the Royal Healer and the Last Nahid, and Prince Ali—the Qaid, or Head of the Guard for the Royal Family—must choose between doing what is right or being loyal to his family. Both protagonists are trying to determine whether or not Dara has ulterior motives and whether or not he is in control of his magical powers. The subplot, which will most likely become the plot later on in the trilogy, is the tension building within the six tribes residing in the kingdom. More is happening than either Nahri, or Prince Ali realize, but they can only do so much to keep a war from breaking out. Yet, there are more forces at work, which are revealed as the story continues. It goes slow at times, but both the plot and the subplot fall together by the novel’s end. 

            The narratives are told from the point-of-views of both Nahri and Ali; but, they are told in the third person limited narrative. Everything is told in real time, which makes the world-building and the plot easy to follow. Both Nahri and Ali are reliable narrators because readers learn of their flaws and the mistakes they make as the story continues onward. These flaws and mistakes are pointed out to them by the other characters, constantly, which could be argued to be an element of foreshadowing.

            The author’s style of writing can be presented in the mood, in which the beauty of the Middle Eastern region covers up the harsh realities of the people who reside there. Nahri swindles the wealthy residents in Cairo, which is moving between the Ottoman Turks. Ali is the Second Prince who hopes his brother’s reign will be better than their father’s corrupt one. Chakraborty’s tone reminds readers that the settings within the novel are in the midst of an occupation by those who don’t belong there: The Ottoman Turks in Cairo, and the Geziri tribe’s (Prince Ali’s family) rule of the Qahtani throne, which was once occupied by the Nahid (Nahri’s) family. The inclusion of Middle Eastern history and folklore flow within the story in order to add to the richness of this fantasy novel. The Glossary at the back of the book and the map at the front of the book allows for readers to keep track of the characters, the locations, and the culture with ease. Chakraborty’s style allows readers to have a flowing and an informative look into her world. 

            The appeal surrounding The City of Brasshas been a positive one for the Science Fiction Fantasy community; and it is a great addition to the sub-genre that is Middle Eastern fantasy. Both the novel and Chakraborty have been nominated for numerous awards such as the Locus, the British Fantasy, the World Fantasy, and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. The second book in the trilogy, The Kingdom of Copper, has received praise from readers and critics alike. As far as I know, the second book picks up where the first one left off. Hopefully, the third and final book, The Empire of Gold, gives us everything we want.

            The City of Brassis a fantasy novel that gives Western readers a story that could have occurred during the Ottoman Rule of the Middle East with the culture and the myths that go with it. While the narrative was smooth, the characters believable, the world-building and the conflicts take a bit longer to develop than I prefer. The “revelation” towards the end of the novel came a bit too late, but it works with the narrative and makes you want to read the next book in the trilogy, which I plan on doing. Chakraborty is a speculative fiction writer whose novels should not be missed by readers of the genre.

My rating: Enjoy It! (4 out of 5)