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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Three Topics Surrounding the Black Community that are Subtle and Profound in “Black Panther”

(If you have neither seen, nor read Black Panther, then please be aware of spoilers!)

Black Panther is the latest Marvel (and Disney) feature film in which, King T’Challa returns to his home, Wakanda, in order to be anointed king and establish his rule. In addition, he has to come to terms with a changing society, a villain from the past, and a contender for the throne. And, while this is not the first feature film about a “Black” superhero—check out the Blade Trilogy—it does include many hidden references that Black people, in the United States and in the rest of the world, are familiar with as part of their heritage. And, no, I’m not referring to the scene with the wig.

First, there is the opening scene, which states, “1992 Oakland.” Without spoiling this scene, it is important to focus on its setting. Anyone who remembers 1992, remembers the L.A. Riots that occurred as a result of the Verdict in the Rodney King Trial. Southern California had several racial issues that were a build up of tensions between the Black community and the Los Angeles Police Department, the Black community and the Asian store owners, and the Drug Wars. These tensions and incidents have been discussed in documentaries and in the biopic, Straight Outta Compton.

In addition, it is important to know that societal improvement has been slow during the past 25 years. Fruitvale Station is about a Black man who is shot and killed by a White Police Officer. The movie is based on real life events following the murder of Oscar Grant. Interestingly, Michael B. Jordan stars in this movie, which is directed by Ryan Coogler, the director of Black Panther. The fact that Erik Killmonger was raised in that environment during that moment in American history is essential to both his character and his personality.

Second, there is the following scene, in which T’Challa “rescues” Nakia from bandits. It turns out that these bandits are men from the terrorist group, Boko Haram. Boko Haram—“Western education is a sin”—is a terrorist group who, similar to the Taliban, want to return their society to “earlier” Muslim practices. Unfortunately, the common misconception of this belief is the objection of females. Boko Haram believes that females should NOT be educated and independent of males; however, they believe that Western culture is responsible for this “risk.” Hundreds of girls have been abducted from their schools, held captive (at gunpoint), and forced to marry members of the terrorist group. Ironically, when the movie premiered, Boko Haram struck again and abducted over 100 schoolgirls in Dapchi, Nigeria. For some reason, neither the United Nations, nor the world leaders have done anything to put an end to this terrorist group. Whether or not they have been working on a solution without the public’s knowledge is undetermined. Yet, it is strange that a fictional country is putting more emphasis on this than the news networks.

Last, is one of the closing scenes in which, Erik is dying and T’Challa allows him to make a final decision. Erik makes his decision saying the following: “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ship because they knew death was better than bondage.” The United States, while acknowledging slavery and racism, remains in denial of the treatment of Black Americans during AND after slavery. In biographical and autobiographical accounts, many captives who were brought over as slaves recall the brutal conditions of being confined in the ship’s cargo hold. Amistad, the slave ship in which, an infamous revolt occurred in 1839—watch the 1997 film by Steven Spielberg—the captives recounted the “treatment” of “sick” slaves…they were chained together and thrown overboard to drown. In addition, when the crew made sexual advances towards the captives, or if some of the captives had free range of the ship, then those captives would jump overboard rather than suffer bondage. The statement made by Erik Killmonger displays his American upbringing and knowledge surrounding slavery and colonialism.

Now, what do all of those scenes mean? While Black Panther is a “stand alone” film amongst the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it is one of the best MCU films, currently. Yet, the movie took the time to further its impact on the targeted audience. It’s a shame that these references are lost amongst everyone else. At the same time, do Black Americans remember how dangerous Boko Haram is?

Knowing What to Love on Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day is supposed to be a day about (courtly) love. However, it started off as an acknowledgement to a man who—during the Roman Empire—was jailed for performing forbidden marriages. In other words, Saint Valentine of Rome was jailed for performing acts of rebellion that he believed was the right thing to do. How many other people in human history have died for the same thing? Please note that February is Black History Month.

Today, a shooting in Denmark occurred because there Lars Wilks, a cartoonist from Sweden—who depicted a parodied version of Mohammed—, was attending a forum about free press. Today’s Denmark shootings are a reminder of what occurred in France 3 weeks ago! Apparently, al-Qaeda has a “Most Wanted” list which Stephane Charbonnier, Terry Jones, and Salman Rushdie are on, which is why this shooting occurred. It makes you wonder if Trey Parker and Matt Stone have a secret to all the mocking and avoiding they’ve done over the years.

This year for Valentine’s Day, in addition to reminding ourselves of who we love, we should also take time to recall what we love. At the moment, simple joys of life are costing us simple joys of love. Freedom of religion, press, and happiness are being taken away by a few who believe that one group deserves more than another group. Parodies and insults have existed for millennia, but societies forget how to take a joke, or even when something needs to be mentioned through comedic jokes. South Park and Family Guy are still on T.V. for a reason. Humor cartoonists and comedians are a necessity that we forget we need until something tragic happens. Practicing one’s religion in peace is a given right, but there is more about the few who causes harm while claiming that it is what their religion preaches.

Earlier this week, madman Craig Stephen Hicks shot and killed three college students in North Carolina “after a dispute over a parking space.” Just like the victims’ families—and to the rational mind—no one actually believes that is what happened. Those innocent people were killed because they were practicing Muslims. There is a federal investigation taking place, but who knows what conclusions will be revealed. At the same time, there has been no recent news about John Crawford and/or Tamir Rice. And, several States are attempting to overturn gay marriage.

I think it is time to look again at what is happening in the world and remind ourselves what would happen if we did not have the rights that everyone throughout the world is trying to hold on to. Yes, the world wants to fight ISIL/ISIS and their extreme radical notions, but in the United States, we are killing and segregating people due to their religious beliefs and/or physical appearances. Yes, the Islamic faith does not believe in there being a physical depiction of their prophet, but death threats and assassination attempts are not the answer. Then again, the scandal surrounding #GamerGate has not faded from media coverage.

In the United States, it seems no “minority” is safe whether Indian, Black, Muslim, or LGBT. The U.S. got to add Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha to the “victims’ list,” which already had Trayvon Martin, Medgar Evers, Harvey Milk, and Addie Mae Collins on it. These United States citizens were either living his or her life or trying to make life better for others like themselves. However, people forget that terrorism exists in the United States, too.

So, like the legacy left behind by Saint Valentine, let us remember the different types of love we enjoy in our everyday lives. We get to love each other. We get to love the freedoms—press, religion, and happiness—that are still being fought for each and every day and have cost the lives of so many. Remain vigilant and hopeful! Vigilantism does not and should not involve innocent lives! Remember who and what you love!