Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Review: Witch King by Martha Wells

The Murderbot author returns to fantasy with a double-headed story of a freed prisoner’s story forward and backward...who happens to be a powerful demon.

In Witch King, Martha Wells returns to secondary world fantasy. Our main character is Kai. And yes, he is a demon, the Fourth Prince in matter of fact, and is rather powerful and feared. Thus, waking up from an imprisonment he doesn’t remember all that well, Kai is immediately backfooted as it turns out he is not being woken up by the kindness of rescuers.

Once Kai is awake and gets himself back on his feet, the narrative splits into two parts. We follow Kai (and his friend Ziede) as they make their way through a world that has changed for some years since he and Ziede were captured and imprisoned in a tomb they were not meant to ever escape from. Given Kai and Ziede’s powers and natures, killing them would have in fact not worked, and so perpetual entombment was clearly the option of choice by their assailant. But who did this and to what greater purpose? That question is also explored in the other half of the narrative, which gives us not only a backstory for Kai, but soon makes it clear that Kai and Ziede’s journey in the present is similar to one they made years before.

It’s a rather clever and well bit done of writing on Wells' part, to have Kai and Ziede traverse landscapes and sometimes meet characters they met as their earlier selves, carefully and skillfully weaving both narratives, their revelations, and Kai’s observations, into a single story. Questions asked in the past get revealed in the present narrative, the aftereffects of actions taken in the past have to be dealt with in the present. History does not repeat, but it sure does rhyme in Wells’ novel.

Readers who first got on the Martha Wells bandwagon with Murderbot may not be very familiar with her fantasy writing. You might not even be quite aware that Martha Wells, until Murderbot gave her success and attention she’s deserved for a long time, is by output very much more a fantasy writer than a science fiction one¹. Her most recent fantasy, which, again, is years old at this point, is her Books of the Raksura, and my mind went to those time and again as I was reading this novel.

There are similarities in the worldbuilding (it's not the same world though) and the same sort of sense of scale and the feel of the world, as opposed to her Ile-Rien novels or her other fantasy books. Wells’ world in Witch King, like the Raksura books, is a diverse world along several axes. It’s a queer-friendly (maybe even queernorm) universe full of humans of various kinds, the aforementioned demons like Kai, witches, and other beings, some of which have supernatural or quasi-supernatural connections. There is a great sense of lived and past history in the novel, this is a world, like the Raksura-verse, that has a long past to it, and secrets and lies and revelations of that past can come to bite you. Unlike the Raksura novels, though, where we have Moon and his friends and companions exploring a deep past they don’t know much about and only slowly come to understand more of, in Witch King, its a much more personal journey for Kai. Given Kai’s longevity as a demon, he’s been around to see polities and cultures rise and fall. For him, the history is also memory, and is a new and marked difference between Wells’ earlier work and this one. Kai appears to my memory to be the major character with the longest lifespan in any of her works. Kai has seen things, done things, lived experiences and lived and seen the world, and all of it informs him as a character, informs his relationships with his friends and allies, and ultimately informs the narrative.

Kai as a character as a demon resonated especially with me because of recently reading Melissa Caruso’s Obsidian Tower series, where it emerges that the main character is, in fact, a long lived demon (although she doesn’t know this for one and a half books) and has a deep history and past which ultimately filters and informs the narrative, both in the character herself, and her relationships with the characters around her, now. Wells shows the power of that approach with Kai, as we learn Kai’s backstory and history and connections, to his family, to his friends, and yes, to his enemies as well. While we never break Kai’s point of view, we get a good view of the other characters in his orbit and get a rich tapestry of people whose interactions with each other are by turns tender, fierce, and sometimes very funny. Kai in the earlier narrative has a world-wonder about him, being new to so many things, including his own potential and power. Kai in the present day narrative is “too old for this shirt” and not afraid to say so. And this all informs the narrative.

And ultimately, narrative and theme is something for the novel to land on. Yes, there is very interesting worldbuilding, diverse, and with a deep sense of history. There are really good world building beats and interesting characters. But it is in narrative and theme that the novel really shows how excellent Wells is as a writer. The novel’s themes of cooperation, of tolerance, of opposing authoritarianism are all strong and well defined by Kai’s story, past and present. There is also a real evoked theme of “building is harder than destroying, but building and rebuilding what has been destroyed is the better, longer path”. And the novel also explores the dangers of the use of unfettered power and having access to that power and what it does to people, to societies.

In a day and age today, the story of Kai’s world and these themes resonate very strongly with our own, and the worldbuilding and character illuminate those themes and makes them sing. As strong as Wells’ earlier fantasy novels are, I think the Witch King really shows her evolution and development as a writer. The Witch King is a rich Martha Wells novel and a very good example of what she can do in a fantasy setting, so if you are a fantasy reader who has only read Murderbot, here is a perfect chance to get to know the fantasy side of her work.


The Math

  • Interesting Worldbuilding
  • Strong Use of Theme
  • Engaging "Too old for this..." character   

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

Wells, Martha, Witch King [Orbit, 2023]

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.