Past and Present Collide in Martha Wells’ Witch King

Who doesn’t love a demon soft boy?

I have to preface this review by saying that I have never read Martha Wells. I’ve heard nothing but praise for her Murderbot series, but sci-fi has never really been my jam. I’m a hardcore fantasy nerd through and through. So, when presented with the opportunity to read Wells’ new standalone fantasy, Witch King, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity! 

Lately, I’ve been craving true high fantasy. I’m tired of reading about a sexy, immortal fairy who falls in love with the “I’m really not that pretty” human girl (ignoring descriptions of her large, doe-like eyes and sensually full lips), who claims to be fiercely independent and yet finds said fairy’s disturbingly possessive tendencies to be romantic. You catch my drift. Give me characters of depth. Give me well-structured world building. Damn it, I just want Patrick Rothfuss to finish the third book of the Kingkiller Chronicles. 

But then I read Witch King and I felt a part of that craving has been satiated. 

Witch King tells the story of Kai, Fourth Prince of the demons (and not a witch at all) in chapters that alternate between his past and his present. In the past, we see Kai and his friends rise up against a cruel and malevolent race known as the Hierarchs. These powerful beings are on a mission to oppress and destroy any who stand in their way. They torture, enslave, and go so far as to commit genocide when it suits them. And in the present, centuries later, Kai has been betrayed and must escape capture in order to save the world he worked so hard to build. 

Kai is clever, calculating, and doesn’t hesitate to kill. But beneath that tough-as-nails demon exterior lurks a soft boy. A boy who has had everything taken from him once before, a boy who knew love, and who would do anything to defend those he cares for. The chapters set in the past are important on so many levels. Not only do they help answer questions about the present situation, but they allow us to see Kai’s growth on an intimate level. Wells makes it clear that yes, Kai is a demon, but he is also vulnerable to the same emotions that make us human.

Wells has a way of bringing characters to life. No one felt like an NPC – even those who spoke only a few lines expressed themselves that set them entirely apart from everyone else. And the world was unlike anything I’ve read before. I love when a fantasy novel doesn’t stick to medieval Europe as a baseline. When it branches out, and mixes up things like societal norms, lines of succession, and the role of women. At one point, Kai observes that among the Arike people (one of many mortal races), the women are traditionally soldiers and wear pants, while the men wear skirts. 

As a demon, Kai has the ability to jump between bodies. While he identifies as male, he spends part of the story in the body of a young woman named Enna, and yet none of the gender fluidity alters how he is perceived or his own self-identity. Kai is Kai, no matter the physical form. There’s no sexualizing of being a “man” in a woman’s body, or any comments objectifying Enna except when Kai appreciates how her size and speed can assist in tricky situations. 

And while it’s implied that Kai is gay, the romance is subtle and nuanced so that it doesn’t take away from the urgency of their mission. I get it, we all appreciate a good love story. But romance doesn’t need to drive the plot. Wells added just a dash to help humanize Kai and make him more relatable, but I never found myself wishing there was more. The rest of the book was just too dang good.

Now for (in my opinion) the downside. While the plot itself isn’t overcomplicated, the world building is almost a little toointense. The Witches are not waving wands or chanting spells, and the demons are not monstrous creatures, and that’s great – I love originality. But Wells throws you into the deep end of a totally unique fantasy world without giving you a chance to catch your breath. She’s a master of showing not telling, and yet sometimes I needed her to tell me. 

My grasp on the magic system was a little hazy. Are intentions tangible or intangible? What is the difference between an intention and a cantrip? I could have used more description to make it easier for me to actually visualize what I was reading. Or at least a glossary to break down the different people and races. Even a map would have been great. It’s a fascinating world, and Wells is obviously a master storyteller, but the little kid in me is a sucker for a good map. 

Overall, Witch King has absolutely sold me on Marth Wells as an author. I will undoubtedly be adding the Murderbot books to my TBR. And if you, like me, are tired of hot fairy love triangles, then this will be the perfect read. 

Witch King by Martha Wells is out now and available for purchase at your local independent bookstore or wherever books are sold. 

For more book reviews from Bea, check out her Instagram at @bumblebeareads

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