Why You Need to Read: “The Survival of Molly Southbourne”

Molly Southbourne #2: The Survival of Molly Southbourne

By: Tade Thompson

Published: July 9, 2019

Genre: Horror, Science Fiction, Sequel 

WARNING: Spoilers from The Murders of Molly Southbourne and The Survival of Molly Southbourne. You have been warned.

            Molly Southbourne was a freak whose blood grew genetically identical duplicates of her. One drop of blood, and a new molly popped up, but it wasn’t cute. It wanted to kill her. Molly spent her whole life killing her duplicates just to survive, (Chapter One).

            Similar to many of the recent sequels in speculative fiction, The Survival of Molly Southbourne starts where its predecessor, The Murders of Molly Southbourne left off. In the sequel, Tade Thompson answers the questions Molly Southbourne (and readers) have had about herself. And, like other works of sci-fi horror (i.e. Alien), there are more eerie forces at work than anyone else knows. 

            Molly Southbourne is a protagonist who is “a fish out of water” because she has no identity and no purpose to her life. Molly Southbourne—the one who survived both the attacks and the fire—is now Molly Southbourne and is living as Molly Southbourne whether or not she wants to. While Molly is a duplicate of Molly “Prime,” as she calls her, she is NOT Molly Southbourne. She lacks both the knowledge, and the skills Molly Prime had. In addition, Molly does NOT have the same problem with bleeding like Molly Prime did (“hemoclones”). All Molly has are the looks and the memories of someone who is dead. Unfortunately, the new Molly Southbourne is the only one who knows, and it’s driving her crazy, literally. 

            The plot in The Survival of Molly Southbourne is how the new Molly Southbourne is adjusting to life as a 27-year-old woman who is supposed to be living as someone else. Molly has more questions about herself than Molly Prime did; and, unlike Molly Prime, Molly decides to get answers to those questions. To say that Molly’s discoveries come straight from a spy novel—complete with multiple conspiracies—would be an understatement. After she gets some answers to her questions from “several” people, Molly must decide how she is going to survive. She doesn’t have to become Molly Southbourne, but she cannot get rid of that part of herself. There is a subplot, and its focus is about a minor character from the first book who was intimate with Molly Prime. In this book, that character attempts to fight the fate Molly Prime left him with unknowingly. Will the efforts be successful? Will Molly be able to help him?

            The narrative in The Survival of Molly Southbourne is an interesting one. While Molly is the protagonist, and the story of the aftermath is told from her point-of-view (1stperson), the sequence is a combination of Molly’s actions and daily life—told in present time—with the memories of Molly Prime—also her memories—bombarding her. The combination of the flashbacks, the stream-of-consciousness, and the present gives readers insight to the adaption and the chaos that is Molly Southbourne. Her struggles and her inexperience make the narrative reliable and believable. As discombobulated as it sounds, the narrative is easy to follow. 

            The style Tade Thompson uses in The Survival of Molly Southbourne is the same as it was in The Murders of Molly Southbourne. The author continues with telling this story using tropes and style based on previous sci-fi horror stories. However, it is the mood—apathetic—and the tone—bizarre—that have changed in the sequel. Molly is making sense of everything that is happening around her, only this time those involved behave as it’s not a big deal. Molly is neither unique, nor lethal as Molly Prime was, but she manages to survive and to adapt to her life as we see through the author’s style. Readers will be pleased with this (continued) style of storytelling. 

            So far, the appeal to The Survival of Molly Southbourne have been positive. Released a month ago (at the time of this posting), readers who were curious as to how Molly’s story would continue is answered. The mysteries and the conspiracies are addressed, and the continuation of the characters from the previous book lets readers know that neither Molly Southbourne, nor Tade Thompson have forgotten about them. Both novellas can be read and enjoyed in one reading. Fans and readers of sci-fi horror need to read these books.

            The Survival of Molly Southbourne is an amazing follow-up to its prequel. While the narrative and the perspective have changed from what came before, the story is as fast paced and as haunting as The Murders of Molly Southbourne. Tade Thompson does an excellent job in bringing Molly Southbourne’s story the resolution it needs. 

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

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Why You Need to Read: “Godsgrave”

The Nevernight Chronicle: Book Two: Godsgrave

By: Jay Kristoff

Published: September 5, 2017

Genre: Fantasy, Grimdark, Historical Fiction

            Ashlinn sighed, her temper fraying. “You have no fucking idea what’s going on here, do you? I know you, Mia. Do you have any idea what the Red Church actually is? Do you think they’re ever going to let you kill Scaeva when he pays their wages?”

            Mia felt the consul’s name like a fist in her belly. 

            “You’re full of shit.”

            “Why do you think Scaeva isn’t dead already?”(Chapter 10, Secrets). 

            Godsgrave—the follow up to Nevernight—is an action-packed fantasy story from beginning to end. Conspiracies are uncovered and secrets are revealed, and characters grow more into themselves. Mia Corvere’s quest for revenge continues when she learns more about the Red Church and the politics of The Republic of Itreya. Jay Kristoff not only delivers an amazing sequel to his readers, but also gives us his take on the Gladiator Games, which are based on the ones from Ancient Rome. 

            Mia Corvere is now a Blade—an assassin—for the Red Church. Thus, she is closer to achieving her quest for vengeance; or, she would be if she hadn’t uncovered a conspiracy within the Red Church that includes her family. Curious to learn more about this connection, she goes undercover by selling herself to one of the noble families—similar to the one she grew up in—as a gladiator. Mia not only has to survive and to learn how to fight within these games, but also must navigate her way into the inner circle of the elite. Mia makes new allies, works with her darkin (shadow) companions, and works with a frenemy. Mia realizes that if she had continued living the life as a Justicus’ daughter it would not have equated to a happy life. At the same time, she learns more about why her parents rebelled against The Republic of Itreya. All the while, Mia learns how to fight as a gladiator, which is its own style and not like how she learned to fight at the Red Church. This is Mia’s coming-of-age story in which she sees everything for what it actually is and how to adapt to this new knowledge, just like everyone else goes through while growing up. Mia and all of the characters she interacts with are as complex as her. 

            The plot is straightforward; Mia continues her path to avenge her family. She’s closer to that goal now she’s a Blade for the Red Church. However, when she’s told not to pursue her target, Mia begins to question the operations within the order. Mia decides to go rogue and to continue her quest by selling herself as a slave to a gladiatorial collegium in order to get closer to Consul Scaeva. There she learns how to fight as a gladiator and how deep conspiracies run. The subplot is Mia learning the hows and the whys of her government and the roles her parents had in it before the rebellion. Both the plot and the subplot are linked in that Mia learns some hard truths about the life she thought she had and lived. This turn of events could alter the way Mia carries out the rest of her plans.

            The narrative in Godsgrave continues from what it was in Nevernight. The events of the past lead up to the events in the present. The difference here is that the narration is in the 3rdperson omniscient point-of-view. Readers want to know what is happening with the other characters when Mia is not around, and the author gives that to us with that method of narration. The world-building continues in the second book through the footnotes, which remain informative and hilarious. Jay Kristoff’s world continues to grow through his narration. 

            The style continues as it started in the first book. Remember, this story is supposed to be one huge chronicle, so the style won’t change, which is a good thing because changing the style would change the way the story is being told and we don’t want that to happen. So, the events of the past are written in italics, the darkins’ dialogue are told using smaller font sizes, and the footnotes continue to explain Iterya’s history and culture. The mood, once again, lets readers know that this world is not a caring one; even the elite mistreat each other. The tone illustrates how an individual could react to such mistreatment; and, it is not good. 

            Godsgrave is the follow up that fans and readers crave for from a sequel. The appeal surrounds how the story and the plot develop through character growth and world expansion. Jay Kristoff succeeds in providing a perfect continuation of this trilogy. It’s safe to assume the same will happen in Darkdawn, the final book in the trilogy. 

            Godsgrave is the perfect transition from Nevernight to the point where you forget that you’re reading two separate books. The theme of doing the wrong thing for the right reason continues in this narrative and in many of the characters. Fans will not be disappointed with this sequel! Mia Corvere’s journey continues to grasp our attention!

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

Why You Need to Read: “Red Sister”

Book of the Ancestor: Book One: Red Sister

By: Mark Lawrence

Published: April 4, 2017

Genre: Fantasy, Grimdark

            A small thing in shapeless linen—not street rags, covered in rusty stains, but a serf’s wear none the less. She might be nine…This girl was a fierce creature, a scowl on her thin dirty face. Eyes black below a short shock of ebony hair, (Chapter 2).

            There is no doubt in my mind (or anyone else’s) that Mark Lawrence is one of the most popular fantasy authors in the world right now. Whether or not it’s Lawrence’s SPFBO Contest on his website, his latest novellas advertised on Amazon, or his popular novels, more and more readers are reading his books. I’ll be talking about his latest trilogy about a convent that teaches girls how to kill and to use magic. Red Sister is the first book in the Book of the Ancestor Trilogy. 

            The story follows Nona Grey, our protagonist, from the moment she is given to a child-seller—Giljohn, through the first few years—ages 9 to 13—of her education at the Convent of Sweet Mercy where she learns more about the abilities she’s been trying to hide from other people. Other characters include her classmates: Clera, Ara, Hessa, Jula, and Ruli; her instructors: Sisters Glass, Rose, Wheel, Apple, Pan, Rule, and Tallow; and other characters who interact with Nona including Raymel Tacsis, the man Nona almost killed. All of these characters are tied to Nona’s education and potential involvement surrounding the “Chosen One” prophecy. Unfortunately, Nona has to learn how to defend herself from the nobles who want her dead for attacking a nobleman in self-defense. Nona’s development goes from her being a poor illiterate child to a novice at the Convent to one of the “candidates” who could be the “Chosen One,” and saving the world. Throughout her early education, Nona learns who to trust and who to stay away from, and nothing is what it seems.

            The plot of Red Sister is Nona’s education at the Convent of Sweet Mercy as well as learning about the abilities she has within herself. In the world of Abeth, four tribes with remarkable traits settled and intermarried with non-magical humans. Centuries later, their descendants can have the traits of Gerant (great size), Hunska (speed and agility), Marjal (elemental magic), and/or Quantal (walkers of the Path and users of greater magic). While it is rare for anyone to have one of these traits, it is believed that one day a “Chosen One,” an individual with all four traits, will appear and save the world from ice and darkness. Nona is one of those who is suspected of being the “Chosen One.” This notion is slammed by many people at the Convent, including Nona herself. However, this subplot is essential to Nona’s character development as she demonstrates her abilities to her instructors because there are many who believe that the “Chosen One” is one of the girls at the Convent of Sweet Mercy. It is obvious that this subplot will become the plot in the later books, but for now, Nona’s education and discovery about herself is the plot in this book. Her interactions with everyone at the Convent who believes, or encourages, the “Chosen One” prophecy is essential to both the plot development and the development of all of the characters. 

            The narrative in Red Sister is limited omniscient narration. Readers get the point-of-view of Nona and a few other characters throughout the story, some of which are told in flashback. In fact, Nona’s first P.O.V. chapter isn’t until chapter 3 and it begins with a flashback. These multiple points-of-view allows for a swifter narration of the story. In the first two chapters (not including the Prologue), readers learn that Nona is about to be executed for attacking a nobleman who attacked Nona’s friend—who is executed before Nona. The very next chapter is the discussion of who gets “custody” of Nona: Partniss Reeve—the owner of fighters who bought Nona from Giljohn, and Sister Glass—the Abbess of Sweet Mercy—who has her own reasons for wanting Nona. Nona leaves with Abbess Glass knowing, at 9 years-old, to expect retaliation from the family of the man she attacked. Another chapter is told in flashback from the P.O.V. of one of Nona’s classmates, and there are several parts of the story that follows a few of the Sisters from the Convent. It does get confusing at times, but this narration helps with Nona’s character development from how Nona sees herself and everyone else, to knowing everyone else’s opinions about Nona. This is an interesting narration because it seems that how Nona sees herself is on par with how everyone else sees her. 

            The way Mark Lawrence wrote Red Sister is a change in direction fantasy readers have become used to: a prophecy is made, the one who fits the prophecy arrives and works with others in order to fulfill it. Only, the author decided to play with that concept and the expectations surrounding prophecy. Repeating ideas used by both J.K. Rowling and George R.R. Martin, Mark Lawrence demonstrates how prophecy can exploit and can harm several people with a (potential) notion that it will all be worth it once the world is safe again. The tone of this book is focuses on the hows and the whys prophecies come about and how more harm can and does come from them before they are fulfilled. Harry Potter’s life was altered because of a prophecy, and several characters throughout Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fireseries are affected by prophecy and suffer because of it. However, will the “prophecy” about the “Chosen One” come to fulfillment in Lawrence’s story? Some characters say, “yes” and many more say, “no.” The mood throughout this novel is how each character feels about the prophecy surrounding the “Chosen One.” And, it seems many of them find the prophecy more of a burden than a blessing. Maybe that’s what Lawrence’s style is supposed to present to readers, witnessing a “prophecy” come true and how everyone involved would react to it. 

            The appeal surrounding Red Sister have been immensely positive worldwide. Presenting a world in which privilege has more power over those with power, as well as a convent with killer nuns makes this novel a must read for all fantasy fans. I kept hearing about this trilogy from other fantasy readers who swore that it was worth reading. Fans of both Tamora Pierce and Robin Hobb will enjoy this series the most. Fans of George R.R. Martin will appreciate the influence and the Easter Eggs found throughout the book. Red Sister covers the first half of Nona’s education at the Convent and the buildup surrounding both the prophecy and Nona’s past. This makes the next book in the trilogy, Grey Sister, a must read for anyone who craves to know what happens next. I am one of those readers, and I can say that Red Sister is a must read for all fantasy fans.

            Red Sister is a novel that made its way from my TBR list to my Read list. Just like The Name of the Wind, Red Sister is a fun and a fast read that presents all sides of the protagonist to the other characters (and to the readers). The realism presented within this story is one of the many reasons why I enjoyed Red Sister so much. Nona is a well-developed character who knows what she is to those involved in her life and it makes you want to keep reading to know what happens to her next. It’s why I’m already reading Grey Sister and Holy Sister afterwards. Even if you’re not a fan of fantasy, Red Sister’s focus on the characters and their personalities is enough of a reason to start reading this book.

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

Why You Need to Read: “The Murders of Molly Southbourne”

Molly Southbourne #1: The Murders of Molly Southbourne

By: Tade Thompson

Published: October 3, 2017

Genre: Horror, Science Fiction

Winner of the Nommo Award for Best Novella 2018

            The rules are simple.

            “If you see a girl who looks like you, run and fight.

            Don’t bleed.

            If you bleed, blot, burn, and bleach.

            If you find a hole, find your parents.”

            Molly recites the lines to herself many times. She finds herself many times. She finds herself repeating them without intending to when she is bored, (Two).

            The Murders of Molloy Southbourne is an homage to classic horror and science fiction stories such as Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein. To say that Molly Southbourne makes the best of her situation through survival is a HUGE understatement. If Tade Thompson’s Rosewater didn’t capture your attention, then his novella will!

            Our first introduction to Molly Southbourne is from the perspective of the person she has shackled in her basement. After a few interesting interactions, Molly Southbourne tells the person her life story. From there, the person—and the reader—learns about the unusual upbringing and life of this tragic individual. Molly Southbourne grew up on a farm with her parents. And, due to an unusual condition, she is home-schooled. In between learning about literature, languages, and mathematics, Molly learns hand-to-hand combat, different types of bleach, and pyromantics. These lessons are essential because whenever Molly bleeds, a clone of her appears; and, whenever a “molly” appears, that “molly” attacks Molly. In order to keep Molly’s condition a secret, Molly is taught how to fight, to kill, to butcher, and to dispose “herself.” As eerie as it sounds, Molly proves to be an intelligent and a resilient individual. Unfortunately, life gets more complicated as she grows into adulthood and attempts to live a “normal” life. Molly continues to grow as a person, but she can neither keep her condition a secret, nor cope with what her condition could lead to. As much as Molly wants to be “normal,” she cannot.

            The plot of the story is Molly Southbourne’s life right up to the prisoner in her basement, and it follows a traditional sci-fi/horror storyline. Molly’s entire life has been stringent due to her “condition,” and as the plot develops, so does Molly, and we all realize Molly can only endure her situation for so long. At the same time, the subplots—Molly’s prisoner, and the root of Molly’s “condition”—are developing. To say both subplots will remind you of a spy thriller would be an understatement. By the time Molly discovers the “truth” of her existence, both the plot and, the subplots converge, and Molly’s character development reaches its end. 

            The narrative starts off in the first-person of Molly Southbourne’s prisoner. The prisoner is disoriented and has no memory of how and why Molly is doing what she is doing. Chapters 2 and 3 are told in flashback by Molly Southbourne and she refers to herself in the third-person. In the last chapter, the narrative switches back to the prisoner’s point-of-view, which is in the present. While it is easy for readers to view the prisoner as a reliable narrator, it is difficult to perceive Molly Southbourne as one. Yes, the narrative is vital to both the plot development and the character development, and it can be followed, but—by the end—both the prisoner and the readers are left with more questions than answers. It is safe to say that Molly Southbourne feels the same way, but she doesn’t know what else to do. 

            The style Tade Thompson presents in this novella is a throwback to the earliest horror stories we now view as classics. The word choice and the sentence structure alerts readers that the author wants your attention. Both the mood—bizarre—and, the tone—apathetic—are obvious as soon as you begin reading the story. The author makes sure that the actions and the skills of his protagonist come across as “normal” and that the condition of Molly Southbourne is “unusual.” Tade Thompson allows readers to determine whether or not Molly’s story is believable. At the same time, the author uses pivotal moments of Molly Southbourne’s life—her first menstrual period, her first boyfriend, etc.—to remind his audience over and over that Molly Southbourne is unique and lethal in her own right. Tade Thompson’s style of writing leaves the story with an open ending; just like the classic horror stories.

            The appeal surrounding The Murders of Molly Southbourne have been positive. The book won the “Nommo Award for Best Novella” in 2018; and, was nominated for the British Science Fiction Association Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the British Fantasy Award. The Tor.com eBook Club selected this novella as its June 2019 selection (free ebook!). Readers and critics enjoyed it enough that its sequel, The Survival of Molly Southbourne, is an anticipated follow-up (published July 9, 2019)! The Murders of Molly Southbourne is an amazing addition to the horror (and science fiction) genre and demonstrates Tade Thompson’s talent as a storyteller. This novella is enjoyable to the point where it can be read over and over again; and, readers might find an additional clue surrounding Molly Southbourne’s life during one of their many re-reads (I did!). I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the series. 

            The Murders of Molly Southbourne is the perfect story for readers who enjoy horror stories. All of the events that lead to the actions performed by Molly Southbourne and those she loves reminds readers that living with any condition is bearable as long as that individual is willing to bear it. Tade Thompson knows how to present a realistic horror story.

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

Why You Need to Read: “Nevernight”

The Nevernight Chronicle: Book One: Nevernight

By: Jay Kristoff

Published: August 9, 2016

Genre: Fantasy, Grimdark

            “A girl some called. Pale Daughter. Or Kingmaker. Or Crow. But most often, nothing at all. A killer of killers, whose tally of endings only the goddess and I truly know. And was she famous or infamous for it at the end? All this death? I confess I could never see the difference. But then, I’ve never seen things the way you have.” (Caveat Emptor).

            This novel, and trilogy, begins with the end and its aftermath: an empire is in ruins and its society has been left in shambles by a teenaged assassin, who killed more people than can be recorded. We are told this by the narrator who decides to record her story about her early life, the path that led her to becoming an assassin, and her death. Jay Kristoff introduces his readers to Mia Corvere, “a killer of killers.”

            Mia Corvere is the protagonist and readers are introduced to her as she is killing a man. We learn two things about her immediately after. One, the murder is part of her initiation into the Red Church—a league of lethal assassins—and the institution that trains them. Two, Mia is the daughter of Justicus Darius Corvere—one of the four leaders who led a failed rebellion against The Republic of Itreya—who was publicly executed when she was 10 years-old. The aftermath led to her mother—Dona Corvere, Alinne—and her infant brother—Jonnen—being arrested and imprisoned, too. Mia is taken away to be drowned in the river; obviously, she escapes and is raised by Mercurio, a retired assassin, who trains Mis in the basics of killing so that she can avenge her family. She is about 16 years-old when she travels to the Red Church for training. Accompanying Mia is her shadow daemon—in the shape of a cat—Mister Kindly. Once at the Red Church, Mia meets her classmates: Tric, Ashlinn and Osrik Järnheim, Hush, Jessamine Gratianus and Diamo. All of them are also rivals for one of the four spots for the title, “Blade,” an assassin for the Red Church. This is done by impressing one of the Shahiids—Solis, Spiderkiller, Mouser and Aalea—as well as Drusilla, the Revered Mother, and Cassius, the Lord of Blades (and a Darkin—one who controls the darkness with their shadow daemon—like Mia). Throughout her training, Mia never forgets her goal—avenging her family—but, Mia begins to question the nature of an assassin all while learning about her abilities as a Darkin and solving the mystery of who is killing the residents of the Red Church. 

            The plot of Nevernight is about Mia’s training to become an assassin and what she endures to make it through the initiation. At the same time, we learn about Mia’s past, which led her to both Mercurio and the Red Church. Both plots are crucial because we learn about Mia through this plot and character development. Readers learn that Mia doesn’t miss the life of being a nobleman’s daughter, she misses her parents and her brother. The subplot is the killer who is attacking the apprentices within the Red Church. While it is not surprising for a league of assassins to have enemies, it is surprising that the perpetrator(s) is attacking the initiates inside the Red Church, and not even those in charge can the perpetrator’s identity. This subplot is essential because it presents Mia with a realistic view of what being a member of the Red Church entails. 

            The narrative in Nevernight is one of the most creative ones I’ve come across in a while. The chronicles are written in the past tense because Mia is dead; however, this recording switches between the “present”—as we’re reading it—and, Mia’s “past”—everything that occurred before Mia arrived at the Red Church. This 3rd limited point-of-view lets readers know how Mia, and those closest to her, are feeling and thinking in the story. In addition, much of the world-building is mentioned in the footnotes, which is both informative and hilarious, so that readers have a better understanding of the world the author is creating. And yes, it’s based on Ancient Rome. While it becomes obvious in the beginning chapters as to who is writing Mia’s story, it is unclear how the Chronicler is able to recall all of these moments of Mia’s life. That being said, we are left to believe that this narrator is a reliable one. 

            Jay Kristoff’s style is as creative as his choice of narration. Mia’s past experiences are written in italics, which makes it easy for readers to distinguish between Mia’s “past” and “present.” Mia’s daemon, Mister Kindly’s—who talks to her and to the other characters (when he chooses to)—dialogue is written in lowercase italics. This is brilliant because the author found a creative way to distinguish the dialogue between two species (?). The information provided within the “footnotes” present the truth surrounding society, especially the culture and the history—both brutal and carnal. The “footnotes” provide satire of the society. Both the mood and the tone are relatable and juxtapose to each other. The mood tells readers of the realities within this fictional story—cruel, harsh and unforgiving. Mia’s father is executed publicly for organizing a failed rebellion, her mother and her brother are imprisoned, and she escaped her execution and was raised by a former assassin who trains her as his apprentice. The tone tells us that one’s path towards revenge usually leaves that individual (and many others) dead. 

            I would describe the appeal surrounding Nevernight as a hidden jewel. It is popular in the grimdark subgenre, and it’s gaining more recognition within the rest of the speculative fiction community. In other words, more and more people are reading this novel. Historical fiction readers will appreciate Kristoff’s society which is based on historical and cultural research. Godsgrave—the 2nd book in The Nevernight Chronicle—was released in 2017 and is an amazing follow-up to Nevernight (review coming soon). And, Darkdawn, the 3rdand final book in the trilogy, will be released in September 2019. 

            Nevernight is a great novel for those who are curious about the grimdark subgenre. Besides that the characters, the plot, the subplots and the style will keep readers interested from the Caveat Emptor (opening chapter). The harsh reality told within the pages reminds us that good and bad are NOT concepts, but manifestations within each individual; everyone is capable of both, but what drives them to perform acts of one or both? This is the question readers are forced to ask themselves more than once. Nevernight is both an enjoyable and a psychological read that I’ll re-read over and over again!

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

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)!