Book Content Warnings: self-harm, death, grief, slavery/enslavement
Article Content Warnings: mentions of the above
After about a year trapped in an underwater prison, Kaiisteron, known as Kai to his friends and Witch King to his enemies, surfaces to find an overconfident enemy spellcaster (called an expositor) trying to enslave his mind and will. However, Kai is by no means defenseless. As a demon from the underearth, he has the power to drain life through touch, inhabit dead—and occasionally, living—bodies, and heal himself. Over his long life of more than fifty years, he’s also had training in two other magic disciplines: cantrips, commonly used by Witches, and intentions, commonly used by expositors. Kai quickly dispatches his enemies, saving a little girl and former slave named Sanja. Sanja trails along behind as he saves his best friend Ziede, who was entombed with him. The three embark on a quest to learn more about their captors, understand the changing political landscape of their world, and save Ziede’s wife, Tahren Starguard. Tahren is a former member of a group of powerful, cult-like magic users that call themselves Immortal Blessed, so her capture is mysterious and unnerving, implicating that some Immortal Blessed might be involved in the plot.
The story is told in two timelines, in which Kai’s present-day quest is interspersed with scenes from an important historical event that occurred approximately 50 years previously: Kai’s defeat of a group of genocidal conquerors called the Hierarchs. The two timelines allow us to understand Kai’s past: his childhood among the nomadic Saredi, his traumatic capture and imprisonment by the Hierarchs, and his fight, led by the enigmatic nobleman Bashasa, to overthrow them. After overthrowing the Hierarchs and building a coalition/empire called the Rising World in its place, it’s implied that Bashasa and Kai became lovers. Unfortunately, Bashasa dies in between the timelines, so we readers don’t get to learn more about this queer relationship.
Summarized here, the plot and world of Wells’ Witch King seem simple enough to grasp. But—as is typical in the fantasy genre—the influx of new names, nations, and historical references feels almost nonstop. Of course, hand-holding readers when it comes to worldbuilding is a drawback. However, while some novels do a great job of thrusting readers headfirst into new worlds, crafting storylines and plots that turn unfamiliar terminologies into exciting mysteries, the readers’ lack of knowledge about the world and Rising World politics makes the story cumbersome rather than engaging. Wells describes a vivid world full of exciting mythical creatures and cultivates a real sense of culture: each region has its own fashion, architecture, and scenery. However, between navigating two timelines every other chapter, being served a low-stakes plot, and having to flip back pages to remind oneself, “what are Imperial Marshals again?,” only serves to drag the pacing of the book to a slog.
The overall lack of suspense in the novel is attributable largely to this inclusion of a two-timeline structure. The constant skips means that we are never afforded time to grow to love our cast of characters, including Kai and his found family. Given that the present day timeline also establishes the convenient resolution to the stakes in the past, it is hard to be invested in either plotline. The Hierarchs are established as the Big Bad, but we enter the novel in the present day with the understanding that Kai has already defeated them—negating any tension involving the Hierarchs that Wells crafts in the past timeline. Alongside the resolved tensions with the Hierarchs, an already-established Rising World, and coexistence between demons, witches, and Immortal Blessed, it feels as though the alternating present day timeline is set in, arguably, the least interesting time.
Kai is a typical fantasy book protagonist; though he doesn’t literally fulfill a prophecy, he attains every type of magical power, and with it, the ability to fight his way out of any situation through grit and self-sacrifice. Witch King uses a soft magic system (i.e. it doesn’t focus on the rules of its magic, instead opting to just describe its effects), which generally serves the storyline well, allowing for a lot of dramatic magical destruction and escapes. However, one aspect of the magic system disturbed us: in order to avoid drawing on the same source of power that the Hierarchs use for their intentions, Kai uses his own (often self-inflicted) pain as a source of power. In battle, combined with his magical healing, he’s nigh unbeatable—after all, if he needs more magic, he can just stab himself. It’s clear that this repeated self-harm is a problem, but it is a problem that is never really addressed. Wells simply frames it as a necessity and leaves it at that. Kai’s friends express sympathy and distress, but they merely stand by while he does it again and again.
Kai is straight out of a YA novel: in the present timeline, he’s a sensitive, dark-haired man who can’t stop hurting himself. Someone should really teach him to love himself and find other solutions to his problems that don’t involve self-harm, but nobody does. This is, at best, a wasted opportunity for character growth, and at worst, an endorsement of an uncomfortably capitalist and competitive mindset—the idea that punishing our bodies is the path to success.
We’ve mentioned previously that Kai has a queer love interest, Bashasa, in the past timeline, though we don’t get to see whether they actually get together. The present day timeline also features a love interest for Kai: Ramad, a Rising World diplomat (called a vanguarder) who resembles Bashasa (possibly a distant relative). Ramad, an amateur historian, is very curious about Kai’s past, and Kai does find that he is attracted to him. However, after almost fifteen chapters of small gestures and tension, their relationship doesn’t go any further. Meanwhile, Zeide’s relationship with her wife is sidelined throughout the book. In the past timeline, Zeide and Tahren go from being reluctant, wary allies to suddenly caring for each other in between chapters. There is very little transition or buildup, and certainly no scenes of intimacy. In the present-day timeline, Zeide’s reunion with her wife at the end of the book is offscreen. For those looking for explicitly romantic or sexual queer relationships, this is not the book for you. There are some heartwarming scenes with Kai and Bashasa, as they first meet and find a connection, and Zeide’s fierce love for her wife is clear throughout. However, neither relationship is explored further.
Martha Wells’s bestselling Murderbot series has been lauded for its aromantic and asexual representation, but coming off that series, she struggles to depict queer relationships that are romantic (and, presumably, sexual). The queer relationships in this novel are more repressed than celebrated; despite being openly gay or lesbian, her characters aren’t ever given an opportunity to show their feelings openly on the page. There is definitely a place in queer SFF for crushes and pining and weird awkward friendships that could be something more. There are also great books that depict the flip side of the coin, in which characters feel uncomfortable being openly gay because of systemic or social repression. These are also important parts of queer life. However, Martha Wells doesn’t successfully write either of those scenarios. It’s unclear whether either of Kai’s relationships could be something more, or even if they should be. Moreover, even if she did write a kind of rom-com story line, would an epic fantasy about mature, immortal adults be the right place for it? One advantage of the two timelines is that we get to see Kai grow from a lost, grieving teenager to a decisive and jaded adult. In the past timeline, he is unsure of his place in the Rising World alliance and yearning for Bashasa’s approval, but by the present-day timeline, he is easily able to think up complex plans on the spot and kill his enemies without hesitation. We don’t get nearly the same amount of character development for Zeide, but she certainly develops a fearsome reputation between timelines. It’s disappointing to see powerful, capable queer adults in such superficial relationships. In 2023, with a burgeoning market for queer literature and representation, we expected more.
—Isabel Hinchliff and Julia Cheunkarndee
MARTHA WELLS has written many fantasy novels, including Witch King, The Wizard Hunters, Wheel of the Infinite, the Books of the Raksura series (beginning with The Cloud Roads and ending with The Harbors of the Sun), and the Nebula-nominated The Death of the Necromancer, as well as YA fantasy novels, short stories, and nonfiction. Her New York Times and USA Today-bestselling Murderbot Diaries series has won the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and Alex Award.
Witch King can be purchased here.