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: “Uncanny Collateral”

Valkyrie Collection: Book One: Uncanny Collateral

By: Brian McClellan

Published: April 2, 2019

Genre: Urban Fantasy

PLEASE NOTE: The following contains some minor spoilers. You have been warned.

            “My name is Alek Fitz,” I said. “I’m a reaper for Valkyrie Collateral, and I’ve come to collect your debt.”(Chapter 1).

            When an author diverts from their known genre, the fans notice. Several questions are asked: Why is this author working on this? Will this genre/sub-genre be as good as the author’s other books? Should I read it? J.K. Rowling and George R.R. Martin are the current popular examples of the genre switch up. Brian McClellan shifts from epic fantasy to urban fantasy in his new novella series, Valkyrie Collections. Both fans of McClellan and urban fantasy will enjoy Uncanny Collateral.

            Alek Fitz is a part troll, part human individual who is an indentured servant/reaper for Valkyrie Collections, a debt-collecting agency that keeps track of people (mostly humans?) who exchange their souls for corporeal desires. Think of it as a world in which people think and behave like Dr. Faustus. However, instead of the individual going to Hell once the contract is over and the conditions are met, that individual is doomed to live without their soul for the rest of their mortal life. Of course, nobody wants to live without their soul, so there are some people who try to avoid the exchange; and, that’s where reapers—a.k.a. bounty hunters—like Alek Fitz comes in. Alek is the best in the business, but it isn’t because he is a workaholic. His boss, Ada, owns him, literally. Alek was sold to her as an infant by traffickers. The barcode over his heart gives the “owner” control of him. All Ada has to do is touch the barcode, which inflicts pain and Alek is obedient to her every whim. This means that Alek is put on the most demanding and dangerous cases. 

            Alek is “partners” with Margarete Abaroa, or Maggie, a jinn who is trapped inside a ring because of a curse, which Alek cannot get off due to the same curse. Both Alek and Maggie work well together, and both share common ground that they are victims of unwanted circumstances. Maggie gives Alek the upper hand and Alek treats her with respect. Both Alek and Maggie are the protagonists in this story because Alek is stuck with Maggie and vice versa. However, Maggie is not without her secrets, so whatever Alek knows about her is because she told him. No one knows about Maggie and why Alek wears a ring while at work. I would say Ada is the antagonist because she is the reason for Alek’s lifestyle. Just like in other stories from the genres of urban fantasy and mystery, Alek has confidantes and sources who are the type of “people” who you expect them to be, friendly but self-serving. 

            The plot for Uncanny Collateralis Alek is forced to take a job for the Ferryman—a.k.a. Death—in order to recover numerous souls, which have been stolen and are being sold secondhand to those who have traded their own. This is a problem for two reasons. One, missing souls throws off the “process” that occurs after an individual’s death. Two, someone who is in possession of any soul but theirs causes them to rot from the inside out. Alek and Maggie are on the case with a limited time span, because the balance of death is in jeopardy. The subplots within the story focuses on the past surrounding both Alek and Maggie. Alek wants out of his bondage from Ada, and he wants to know who his parents are and why they sold him. And, Maggie’s past is revealed to Alek—and to readers—when someone comes looking for her with ominous intentions. The subplots reveal more of Alek and Maggie’s character to each other, but it furthers their resolve in working on a way to escape their bondage. The plot develops, rises, and resolves at an appropriate rate because the series needs to begin and to end with the continuing dilemmas of these characters.

            Just like in other urban fantasy stories, the setting plays a huge role because the characters interact and travel from place to place. Alek travels throughout parts of Ohio—real places—talking to imps, necromancers, and angels while searching for the missing souls for one of the agents of death. The narrative is told in real time, so everything happens in a stream-of-consciousness and we learn about the setting and the society in which Alek resides in. Obviously, Alek is the narrator, and it’s safe to say that he’s a reliable one because of his predicament and lifestyle. The real time and the action within the narrative makes this novella an easy read. 

            One of the ways the author writes his story is by using allusion and pop culture references. Ferryman is described as looking like Keith Richards with a voice like Bob Dylan. Alek works for Valkyrie Collections; Valkyries are beings who travel the world collecting souls of warriors to fight in Ragnarok. And, Maggie is a jinn who is cursed to live inside of a ring. McClellan uses these methods in order to set the mood of the story. At the same time, the tone of this story lets readers know that this urban world is harsher than ours. Lost souls, cursed objects, and necromancy are just some of the negatives that comes with living in a world with magic and paranormal forces. This is the author’s take on the paranormal and it is very engaging. 

            Fans of urban fantasy will enjoy Uncanny Collateral.Fans of McClellan’s other works will enjoy both the worldbuilding and the fight scenes. This novella is the first in a new series by a popular best-selling author who is branching out with his storytelling and giving readers something new and different to enjoy. It seems novellas are gaining more popularity when authors present their fans with the chance of reading more of what they have to offer. It is obvious that McClellan plans on continuing this series, and I hope he does because the story is very entertaining, and it would be a shame if the series ended before it could continue. And, while it’s too soon for any form of adaptation to be considered, I believe either a graphic novel or an animated series would be the best formats for consideration.

            I had the opportunity to be both a Beta and an ARC reader for Uncanny Collateral. And, while it’s cool seeing your name on the Acknowledgements Page, I really did enjoy this story. The Valkyrie Collection reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s American Godsbecause of the use of actual places for the setting gives the story a realistic appeal, and something unknown could happen without anyone else knowing about it is a bit eerie. Brian McClellan presents his urban fantasy world and it works. All of the familiar elements are there: magic abilities, humans with knowledge of the existing worlds, and half human protagonists struggling with their identity. Like I said before, both urban fantasy readers and McClellan’s fans will enjoy this novella. 

            Uncanny Collateralis a fun addition to the urban fantasy genre. The setting is realistic, and the characters are rounded with conflicts that match the world the author created. The pacing of the story is appropriate for a novella and the plot fits within the length as well. My only issue is that it’s too obvious there is going to be more to come in this series, but of course readers won’t know what will happen next until the next book is released. I hope we get more because I want to know what happens next, too.

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