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: “Binti: The Complete Trilogy”

Binti: The Complete Trilogy                                                      

By: Nnedi Okorafor

Published:  Binti(#1) released September 22, 2015

                 Binti: Sacred Fire(#1.5) released February 5, 2019

                 Binti: Home(#2) released January 31, 2017

                Binti: The Night Masquerade(#3) released January 16, 2018

                Binti: The Complete Trilogyreleased February 5, 2019

Genre: Science Fiction, Afrofuturism, Anthology  

Winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novella 2015 & the Hugo Award for Best Novella 2016

PLEASE NOTE: The following contains minor spoilers for all four novellas. You have been warned.

I am Binti Ekeopara Zuzu Dambu Kaipka of Namib (Binti).

            Every once in a while you hear about a story that is so unique and so captivating that it is suggested that everyone should read it regardless if it’s not from their preferred genre of literature. Bintiis a story about a young woman who leaves her home—without her family’s blessing—so that she can take advantage of an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend the most prestigious university in the galaxy, Oomza Uni. She boards a spacecraft and it is traveling to a distant planet, and Binti has never been away from her home before. It seems like the story will pick up pace once the spacecraft arrives; only it is attacked by a “hostile” alien species. This is the first part of the first novella in the series by Nnedi Okorafor—which, won both the Nebula and the Hugo awards for “Best Novella”—and, neither the action, nor the story ends with the first novella! Binti: The Complete Trilogycontains all of the author’s stories in one volume!

            Bintistarts off with a simple plot: a gifted young woman goes against her family’s expectations in order to attend an esteemed university. Readers are introduced to Binti’s intelligence for mathematics, abilities as a harmonizer, and Himba culture. At the same time, readers are reminded that human differences and alien versus human culture clashes exist in the future as well. One particular rivalry between the species quickly becomes the center of the story, quickly. Binti has to find a way to survive her new—and unexpected—predicament, which will be hard because the Meduse, the hostile alien species want her dead. 

            Binti is terrified to the point where it’s easier to blame herself for her current situation rather than realize how sheltered she was back on Earth. Binti soon realizes that she must rely on her abilities and her talent in order to understand the situation and escape with her life. However, Binti is not in control of either her abilities, or the tools she has with her. This means improvising. She soon realizes that her astrolabe allows her to communicate with the Meduse on the spacecraft. Binti is able to come up with a strategy to save herself, the lives at Oomza Uni, and the lives of the people on Earth, including her family. Even though she succeeds, the experience of Binti’s excursion to Oomza Uni changes her in more ways than one.

            Binti: Sacred Fireis the latest story written by the author in this series, but it serves as an interlude between the first and the second books in the series. This tale provides an appropriate look into Binti’s life as a student at the university she saved. She has become friends with one of the Meduse, Okwu, who is now a student at the university as well. Readers gain insight into Binti’s interactions with her classmates and her professors, and her family and friends back home (the ones who are willing to talk to her). 

            Unfortunately, Binti’s new life at Oomza Uni is not as smooth as she hopes. She is suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder from her voyage to the university and from the bullying from a few of the humans who happen to be from a feuding tribe from Earth. Although Binti is hailed as a hero for negotiating a truce, she feels as isolated at Oomza Uni as she did back home. Not to mention, Binti is still dealing with some personal “changes” to her being. 

            Even though Binti is traumatized and isolated, she is not alone. Her friends are with her as she works her way through her adjustments and her traumas. Binti knows that it’ll take a while to get used to her new lifestyle, but it seems like she’ll be getting the full university experience. 

            Binti: Homeis about what is in the title. Binti completes her first semester or year at Oomza Uni and decides to return home to visit her family and to participate in her tribe’s pilgrimage. Binti has made progress at the university: in her classes, in her therapy sessions, and in her reputation as a Master Harmonizer. However, returning home means traveling by spacecraft, and it’s the same one Binti traveled on to get to Oomza Uni.

            The spacecraft—known as The Third Fish—is a living thing that flies in outer space. Binti—who is still suffering from PTSD—decides to stay in the same room she stayed in during her first voyage in order to face her trauma. Throughout the voyage, Binti is able to make some progress of dealing with her panic attacks and flashbacks. However, Binti still has to face her fear of reuniting with her family. And, since she’s lived away from her home for a while, she’s forgotten some of her people’s more casual customs. Binti has changed in more ways than one because of her experiences. Unfortunately, her family and her tribe are static in their ways and are disgusted with Binti’s changes and growth. 

            The purpose of a pilgrimage is for an individual to seek growth through moral and spiritual growth. Oftentimes, that individual becomes enlightened and transformed by the end of their pilgrimage. This is what happens to Binti during her pilgrimage even if it isn’t the pilgrimage she was supposed to go on. The pilgrimage Binti goes on brings her to a new level of personal enlightenment. And, she is made aware of her own prejudices and slowly comes around to accepting the changes she’s been experiencing. At the same time, the prejudices surrounding three different clans have erupted, and Binti—once again—must rely on her skills as a harmonizer in order to diffuse the tensions before war breaks out. 

            Binti: The Night Masquerade starts where Binti: Homeleft off, with Binti rushing back to her family home after her pilgrimage in order to stop a war before it starts. The Night Masquerade is a personification of the coming of a “big change.” To Binti, she interprets it to mean a war is about to start. And, Binti plans on ending it before it can happen.

            Cultures clash, hidden history is revealed, and someone always gets betrayed. The POVs change so that the readers have a better understanding of what is happening during certain parts of the story. Within the conclusion to this series, readers realize that not everyone is willing to accept change, not everyone wants to interact with someone who is “different” from themselves, and not everyone is willing to admit he/she/it/they have flaws. Binti comes to terms with all of this as she returns to Oomza Uni just in time for the upcoming academic year. All of her experiences and changes within herself allow Binti to elevate herself beyond the status of Master Harmonizer. However, Binti wishes to continue her studies, for the time being. 

            It was thrilling to read Bintiagain. And, Binti: The Complete Trilogyallows readers to enjoy all of the Binti stories in tandem. Fans of Nnedi Okorafor and readers of speculative fiction will appreciate this series compilation as much as I did. Reading through Binti’s life as a university freshman reminded me of some of my experiences during my first year of college as well, including the changes in myself and the stagnancy of everything else. Bintiis a story about personal growth through experience and change, and how expectations depend on individual actions, not those of others. This coming-of-age story is pleasing to all readers and it should not be overlooked. And, readers can rejoice knowing that Nnedi Okorafor has plans to continue Binti’s story!