Review: Witch King

Posted: December 6, 2023 by in Books We Love (4.6/5 single_star) Meta: Martha Wells, Fantasy

The great thing about Martha Wells is that even if you don’t read anything about the book beforehand, you can be guaranteed it is something different and unusual. And in a good way. WITCH KING is one such book.

Kai is our title character, who turns out isn’t actually a witch but is a body-inhabiting demon. Originally from the Underneath, he was invited to inhabit the body of a dead young woman on the plains of Saredi, where such inhabitation is considered an honor to a family. He is destined to one day have children (from the union of a demon-inhabited human with another human) who will have the abilities of witches. But everything changes when the Hierarchs come and change the make up of his world forever.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. That’s the past. We open the book in the present, where Kai finds himself imprisoned–and he doesn’t remember how it happened. He doesn’t know how long he’s been there. The only thing he does know is that he was in prison with his best friend, the witch Ziede. The question is: Who could have imprisoned two of the most powerful people on the planet? And why? In the process of escaping their prison, Ziede discovers that her wife is also missing. So Kai and Ziede race across the ocean and the continent to find the villains who are up to no good.

And in the process of these travels we get to see a world full of fascinating characters, landscape, history, and magic.

This world felt a lot like ours, but on a smaller scale. We have the plains people, the city states, the merchant coastline, the Roman-like Hierarchs, only of course there’s magic involved. Demons can do magic, but there’s also other kinds, including the elemental-based witches and the life-force based expositors. The magic is explained as we go, without infodumps, and is believable because of its limitations (which also make for interesting problem-solving). The world had a few earth-like animals, while others are vastly different. So the world has similarities to feel familiar, but with enough difference to feel foreign.

I enjoyed reading about Kai’s experiences and his unique point-of-view (it’s told exclusively from this POV). He’s been wearing a human suit for a long time, but his behaviors between demon and human are mixed, making for an interesting set of reactions and interactions with people. I imagine it’s really hard to not see humans as insects when you have the ability to kill anyone with a touch. Conversely as the insect, a strong reaction to such a potential predator is expected. Kai has a bit of a world-weary vibe (he’s stuck on the human plane because the Hierarchs cut off his connection to the Underneath), since as a demon he’s immortal, and he’s seen his share of adversity. We meet all sorts of people throughout the book, from your city gutter trash, to princes, soldiers, a variety of witches, immortals, and regular people. Wells makes them easy to recognize and enjoy. Unfortunately since the book is told from Kai’s POV, and it moves really quickly, we don’t get a lot of depth from other secondary characters. My biggest complaint about the book is the sometimes altruistic expectations of human behavior; for example, the city-states didn’t have a history of conflict (wars, etc), yet some of the city-state leaders were backstabbing jerks, so color me skeptical.

WITCH KING by Martha Wells is a fun fantasy with the magic, mystery, and mayhem that she writes so well.

Even though the plot switches back-and-forth from present to past, it works seamlessly. Things we learn in the past help us to better understand the present, but it doesn’t bog the story down. In fact, these back flashes make the story much better and even increases the tension throughout the novel–even though you know they overcome the Hierarchs, it’s a real struggle to accomplish it, so it was an exciting read. Wells describes the events well, and in many cases it’s the flashy fun you’d expect from a movie. (Would I watch it? Definitely!)

I loved the weirdness, I loved having what is typically a villain instead being the hero. I love the close connection between two people without romance getting in the way. And I loved watching two people who have a long history work together in a way that made them stronger as a unit.

  • Recommended Age: 13+
  • Language: A handful
  • Violence: Plenty of fighting and blood, magical fights, beheadings, some gore
  • Sex: Vague references of an F/F relationship

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