As soon as it was announced, Witch King immediately intrigued me. I loved the title and the cover and the premise, and while I’ve never read anything from Martha Wells, her Murderbot Diaries series is highly loved and lauded by those I trust. I’m much more of a fantasy reader than a sci-fi reader, so when I saw that she was writing a fantasy, I knew that I wanted to read it as soon as possible. And I’m happy to report that, in spite of those sky-high expectations, I was not disappointed. Witch King is a high-octave quest through a very original world littered with compelling characters, captivating locales, and some deeply disturbing magic and monsters. But, at its core, it is the ultimate story of found family, one of the best I’ve ever read.
Kai is a life-sucking, body-snatching demon with an ooey-gooey center. He might be nigh on impossible to kill, and he can take some seriously hard knocks without stopping until he is the last being standing. But when it comes to those he loves? He will do absolutely anything for them. Even if that means going to essentially the ends of the earth and battling hoards of opponents to reach them. Because that’s what the quest is here. Kai is not seeking gold or glory or even vengeance; he just wants to find the missing members of the family he built for himself and reunite them.
Our story begins in a tomb. Kai’s tomb. Demons are severely weakened by water, and he finds himself in an elaborate water trap, with no clue as to how he got there or how long he’s been there. After freeing himself and his best friend, a witch named Ziede, they seek to find Ziede’s wife and brother-in-law, and to learn who betrayed them and why.
The storytelling here felt incredibly unique to me. The pace is somehow both slow and propulsive, with action on nearly every page. There is no intensive world building; Wells doesn’t hold her readers’ hands, but rather reveals things organically as the story progresses. For some reason the world felt vaguely Egyptian to me in terms of setting, but that was the only similarity I can draw between this book and anything else I’ve ever read. There were so many different classes of beings, and we learn little snippets and snatches about them as that information becomes relevant to the plot.
This is a story that demands and rewards patience. While the book starts off incredibly strong with Kai’s escape from his own tomb, and there are action sequences aplenty, there’s something meandering about the plot itself as it unfolds. We flip every other chapter between Kai’s present and his past, how he came to be called the Witch King and how he built this family for himself out of the ashes of loss. I was equally invested in both timelines. The combination imbued the book with an element of mystery that really worked for me.
Wells is a marvelous crafter of character. Kai was multifaceted and somehow wholly unexpected. I fell in love with him, and was charmed by the people he loved. I could have spent endless days with him. And yet, we get very little inner monologue from any of these characters, including Kai. He still felt like a mystery to me, even though the entire story was told from his perspective. Everything I learned about his character, about his inner conflict and his love for his friends and his determination to protect them against all odds, I felt as if I learned from outside observation. When people talk about how an author should “show not tell” in their work, this could serve as an excellent example of an author doing exactly that, with great aplomb.
I thoroughly enjoyed Witch King, even when I was feeling slightly lost. Wells created something truly special with Kai, and with the world in which he lives. I would love to visit him again someday, should Wells ever decide to revisit the world. But even if she doesn’t, this was a wonderfully contained story that left me feeling content after I read the final pages. If her character writing is this good in everything she pens, I can’t wait to go back and reader her Murderbot Diaries.
You can order this book from: Blackwell’s.