An engrossing story and a complex world…
Although I mostly read murder mysteries, I also dabble in a bit of sci-fi and fantasy – which steered me some time ago towards Martha Well’s Murderbot series, which I’ve loved. So I was excited to have a chance to try Wells’ new stand-alone fantasy, the eponymously-titled Witch King. And I loved it, although at times I was more than a little confused…
At the beginning of the story, I shared my confusion with the demon Kaiisteron (aka the Witch King), who wakes up in a dead-ish body, in a tomb in an underwater mausoleum, with no memory or idea of how he got there. One might think that a demon is an inherently evil creature, but in this world, the term appears to derive more from their terrifying magical capabilities and origin in the “underearth”, rather than any intrinsic lack of morality. After all, as Kai drily puts it, after draining the life force from some nasty people who have come to enslave him while he is in a weakened condition, “bad people taste better than good ones.”
Another of those terrifying bits of magic, however, is that Kai is able to body-hop, and once he’s awake, he soon moves to another body, so he can find and release his best friend, the witch, Ziede, who is also trapped in a coffin nearby. After which they set off to find Ziede’s missing wife, Tahren, who is NOT close by. Oh, and obviously, Kai and Ziede also want to figure out how – and why – they ended up abducted and almost dead. And don’t forget the stray orphan Kai picks up along the way, either. And this is all in chapter 1!
From that wild start, things continue to pick up pace, both in the “main” narrative, and in the “past” narrative, which provides most of the back story. And I was quickly hooked by figuring out the various characters, multiple timelines, different kinds of magic, and all-too-human politics of this new world. I found Kai’s and Zeide’s touch of snarkiness with each other to be matched by their deep friendship (“… [a]nd there was only one demon Ziede Daiyahah traveled with”), which was a treat. And once I learned how to tell the past and present apart 😊, I enjoyed what was going on in both narratives – which is rare for me, since usually in a two-timeline book, I develop a strong preference for one or the other, and here I liked them both. So although I was confused for much longer than Kai was, eventually things fell into place and the book just rocked.
My only beef with Witch King, and it’s minor, is that I’m not usually a fan of the split-timeline approach to story-telling, and this was also the case here. It seemed a little much at first to be busy trying to figure out this new world, which is quite complex, while also having to keep track of when we were in the current day, and when we were in the past. In the end, I gave thanks for the “historical” blurbs at the beginnings of the past chapters, which helped me switch gears, but I was still at least partially lost for a good chunk of the first half of the book – which I then went back and reread immediately after finishing and enjoyed much more. So I think perhaps a bit more world-building up front might have been helpful, so as not to have/want to go back and reread.
But Witch King is still a great story. And although it is being marketed as a stand-alone novel, I’m now hoping it is actually the start of a series – both because I want to know what happens next with Kai and his found-family, and also because, having managed to (mostly) figure it out, I’d like some more time to enjoy this world! And finally, my thanks to Tor.com and to NetGalley for the advance review copy.