I received a digital ARC from the publisher, Tor, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Miles is a psychiatrist who is treating war veterans. His powers, kept hidden in a society where witches are imprisoned in asylums, make him notice that something isn’t right with some of his patients, beyond the usual war fatigue. When a dying man comes to him, claiming to have uncovered a state secret about the war, Miles starts investigating the suspicious death and the victim’s accusations. He is assisted by Tristan, a mysterious and charming being who came to Aeland for his own purposes. In the meantime, the country is shaken by gruesome domestic murders perpetrated by veterans. Miles is caught between trying to uncover the truth and doing his best to avoid his powerful family, for whom he is presumed dead in battle.
Witchmark was, all things considered, a good read. A few aspects worked for me, a few others didn’t quite, but I would still consider it a strong debut.
Let’s start with what did work — first, the setting. It is familiar and utterly new at the same time, something I really enjoy in fantasy. Aeland is inspired by Edwardian England, down to the early-20th-century inventions that are powered by aether as an alternative to electricity. Polk also managed to give her setting a presence; I could hear the bicycle bells, I could smell the apple scent permeating the pages. I liked the experience of being in the story, its backdrop felt both comfortable and fresh at once.
I also appreciated how exciting and fast-paced the plot is. The murder mystery aspect makes the book extremely readable, and since there’s a lot going on, we’re kept on our toes until the climatic end. The story also provides us with an interesting take on PTSD and mental health, which is another strong point in its favour.
As to what worked less for me…I must admit that I wanted to like Miles more than I did. On paper, he’s my type of protagonist: caring, empathetic, quietly competent. I did enjoy the fact that Polk put a twist on the “the warrior homecoming” trope, by making him a doctor that continues to wage a war, this time against his patients’ mysterious illness. However, something just didn’t click, and I was left mostly irritated by how he let himself be manipulated. First-person point of view can also be limiting. I wanted to know more about Tristan — I think Polk is planning for Witchmark to be a duology and I wouldn’t be surprised if the sequel is from his point of view. It would be great, because the few hints we have of his past are really intriguing. Plus, the slow-burning romance between him and Miles is sweet and promises to be developed even more in a follow-up story, and I would love to have his perspective on it.
The magic system is interesting, but I was a bit conflicted about it. Magic in Aeland is officially forbidden, those who are suspected of having powers are submitted to a gruelling test and locked up if they fail it. However, an elite who answers to the Crown is allowed to practice magic, in order to tamper with the country’s otherwise unliveable weather. They rely on their Secondaries, less powerful mages who can do “tricks” but are used (and misused, and often abused) as a wellspring of power. Miles joined the war effort as a physician and faked his own death to escape being his sister’s bound Secondary. There is more to the magic than that, and we get additional information as the plot moves forward.
My issue was that I was a bit skeptical about the short-sightedness of making the Secondaries mere sources of power when a few of them have important talents. In a country at war, one would think that the ability to heal, for example, would be sought after. It is understandable that the elite would want to preserve the status quo, but the whole thing seems so unpractical to me. Fortunately, attempting to shake up this established order is one of the key plot points.
I think the positives outweighed the less-positives for me on this one. Polk did a lot of things differently, and the book has a strong distinct identity which makes it a breath of fresh air. I am looking forward to reading the sequel — the ending was open enough to make me want more, even if the story is relatively self-contained.
Add Witchmark to your TBR if you like:
- Edwardian/gaslamp(ish) fantasy
- A fast-paced murder mystery plot
- LGBT romances
- Magic-heavy stories
Witchmark is to be released on June 19th. Tor.com offers a free sample to preview the book!