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: “A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World”

A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World

By: C.A. Fletcher

Published: April 23, 2019

Genre: Science Fiction, Coming of Age, Post-Apocalypse, Dystopian 

            “I wasn’t going home Not then, not yet, or not to my home anyway. I was going to go to his home. I was going to get my dog. I was going to take his boat. And then, when and only if I did that, I would go home,”(Chapter 13, “The tower”).

            The world has ended. However, this post-apocalyptic story does not occur as the world is ending, or immediately after the world ends. Instead, the story follows the descendants of those survivors; these people are living in what remains of the world 100 years later. And yes, the novel is about a boy who goes on a journey to recover his stolen dog. Before you judge the plot of this book, recall the plot of the movie, John Wick.

            Griz is the protagonist and we follow the events of his adventure afterthey happen. Griz lives with his family—parents and brother and sisters—on an island. There are other people who live in this big world, including their neighbors with whom both families make supply runs together. As mentioned in the summary, a thief—named Brand—“stops by the island” and takes one of the family’s dogs. Griz, who believes in family and doing the right thing, takes off after Brand in order to get the dog back. Throughout Griz’s journey, he explores what remains of our world: buildings, wildlife, landscape, etc. Griz learns more about the world because he must survive alone with his knowledge and his instincts to guide him. The few people Griz meets throughout his journey presents both the struggle and the complications surrounding each individual, including Griz. 

            The plot is straightforward. Griz leaves home to chase a thief who stole from his family and took his dog. I would not call this a “hero’s journey” plot; but, instead an adolescent leaves home, learns about the world, and returns a changed person. The plot is coming-of-age; and, the subplot is survival, the man versus nature conflict. It is mentioned throughout the novel that so much time has passed and there are so few people left—according to Griz, approximately 7,000—that a lot of the previous knowledge has been lost and abandoned. Computers and vehicles are no longer operating, medical services have been reduced to herbs and remedies—an injury or an illness can lead to one’s death—and, maps are as useless to someone who doesn’t know where they are compared to someone who is able to travel to those places. The apocalypse not only reduced the human population, but also reduced all helpful knowledge for humanity to thrive. These factors let readers know that Griz’s journey is more complicated than we first believe it to be. 

            The narrative is told from Griz’s point-of-view after the events occurred. Griz is recounting the events of his life and his journey in a blank journal he found during one of his family’s scavenging trips. With limited ways to keep oneself occupied, writing in a journal is a good idea. This narrative could be said to be reliable because the times in which, Griz does catch up with the thief, he doesn’t allow his judgment to cloud over with what the thief tells him about himself and the world. The fact that Griz includes what the thief has to say makes this story more believable because the need to survive is highlighted in this narrative. In addition, Griz mentions parts of the story he decided to omit because it was “irrelevant” to his story. Not only does this make the narrative easier to follow, but also gives the narrative a bit of realism in that not every detail has to be included within a given story. 

            The style the author, C.A. Fletcher, uses makes for a believable “what is” scenario without the mention of zombies. What happens to the world and its survivors years after the world ends? In this case, the world continues as it was, but with limited interference from the actions of humanity. What’s left of any buildings are either safe, or decrepit; all animals roam without fearing humans because there are so few left; and, plants and vegetation thrive where they are with only the elements to concern them. Fletcher’s mood for his story is that the world goes on with or without humans. However, the tone reiterates the darker side of humanity. Yes, Griz and his family were gullible enough to allow a thief into their home, but the thief tells Griz more than once that he is not a “bad guy.” And, the thief is right, to an extent. With so few people and limited resources, there are some people who would resort to darker methods for survival. There are no laws to restrict anyone, anyone could get away with doing just about anything—theft, kidnapping, murder, etc.—and, not worry about consequences or law enforcement. Fletcher gives readers a two-sided notion of a post-apocalyptic world with this style of writing. 

            Anyone who is a fan of post-apocalyptic stories will enjoy Fletcher’s novel. As I mentioned before, there are no zombies or first wave attacks in this story; and, this does not happen immediately after the events at the end of the world. And, that’s the appeal of A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World, the aftermath of the apocalypse! Given the approximate age of Griz (16?), adolescent readers will find this novel appealing as well. I can see this novel becoming an assigned book in schools.

            A Boy and His Dog at the End of the Worldis an entertaining dystopian bildungsroman novel that puts a lot of emphasis on the atmosphere of the Earth over the characters. Readers learn from Griz’s experiences that both knowledge of survival and knowledge of people go hand-in-hand. My only issue with this novel is that while Griz learned and accomplished much on his journey, he doesn’t seem changed by it that much. It could be because Griz is telling the story in his journal. The “story doesn’t end with the journey” notion that left me wondering whether or not Griz and his family has more to tell us about their world. Other than that this novel was fun to read. 

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