Adrienne Martini Reviews Witch King by Martha Wells

Witch King, Martha Wells (Tordotcom 978-1-25082–6794, $28.99, 432 pg, hc) May 2023. Cover by Tommy Arnold.

‘‘I’m just trying to learn how everything works,’’ one of the secondary characters says in Martha Wells’s Witch King. Same, secondary character. Same.

For the last few years, Wells’s Murderbot stories have been collecting readers and awards across the genre. All of the praise is well-earned. These science fiction stories about a sarcastic mostly-robot are jewels of storytelling, ac­tion, and character. By now, most readers have discovered Wells’ back catalog, which is full of delightful fantasy novels. Witch King is her return to that side of the SF/F divide.

The titular witch king is Kai, a demon who is called from the Underearth to inhabit the body of a recently dead member of the Saredi. It is a noble role for both demon and the deceased. Kai’s life among the Saredi is a pleasant one until the Hierarchs show up. They are like the armies of Genghis Khan but with brutal magic to help raze the path in front of them.

The story opens with Kai – now in a new body – discovering that he has been trapped underwater for an undermined amount of time. The reader is just as confused by this state of af­fairs as Kai is. What is this world? Who is this person? How does any of this work? Kai figures all of that out relatively quickly. The reader – or this reader, at least – does not. Even by the end of Witch King, I understood about 75% of how this world operates and how the different types of people in it intersect.

Wells bounces between Kai’s current conun­drum and his past. We meet Ziede, a witch who can control the wind, and her wife Tahren, an Immortal Marshall who has some kind of con­nection to the Hierarchs but is now an apostate. It’s right about there that my understanding of all of the different factions and plots of this world falls apart. Wells introduces so many parts of Kai’s world so quickly that figuring out all of the players and how they relate to Kai’s story quickly becomes impossible, so much so that I really wondered if this was the second book in a series.

Which is a bummer, because so many as­pects of this story are great. This world is full of imaginative bits of scenery, like a whale who has become a floating house and an underwater palace that becomes contested property. When the book shifts its focus to the relationships between the characters, the prose captures the complicated dynamics in the relationship. There are moments of joy and of sarcasm and every­thing in between. When you know what’s going on, Witch King is hard to put down. Sadly, those are few and far between.

Adrienne Martini has been reading or writing about science fiction for decades and has had two non-fiction, non-genre books published by Simon and Schuster. She lives in Upstate New York with one husband, two kids, and one corgi. She also runs a lot.

This review and more like it in the April 2023 issue of Locus.

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