Series: The Kingston Cycle, #1
Author: C. L. Polk
Publication date: June 19, 2018
Length: 318 pages
C. L. Polk arrives on the scene with Witchmark, a stunning, addictive fantasy that combines intrigue, magic, betrayal, and romance.
In an original world reminiscent of Edwardian England in the shadow of a World War, cabals of noble families use their unique magical gifts to control the fates of nations, while one young man seeks only to live a life of his own.
Magic marked Miles Singer for suffering the day he was born, doomed either to be enslaved to his family’s interest or to be committed to a witches’ asylum. He went to war to escape his destiny and came home a different man, but he couldn’t leave his past behind. The war between Aeland and Laneer leaves men changed, strangers to their friends and family, but even after faking his own death and reinventing himself as a doctor at a cash-strapped veterans’ hospital, Miles can’t hide what he truly is.
When a fatally poisoned patient exposes Miles’ healing gift and his witchmark, he must put his anonymity and freedom at risk to investigate his patient’s murder. To find the truth he’ll need to rely on the family he despises, and on the kindness of the most gorgeous man he’s ever seen.
I’ve had my eye on Witchmark for a few years now — I’m so glad I finally sat down with the book and gave it a try!
In Witchmark, we’re introduced to a steampunk-flavored world in which aether lines power lighting and telephones, while average people get around the city on bicycles or in horse-drawn carriages. Witchcraft exists, but it’s divided very sharply along class lines: There is a secret inner circle of nobility with magical powers, known as the Invisibles. They serve the Queen, and keep Aeland protected from storms and natural disasters through quarterly rituals to sing in the seasons.
Invisibles have powers that run through the generations of their families, and in general, there’s one main mage in the family, who uses a lesser-powered family member (known as a Secondary) essentially as a backup battery. The Secondary is magically bound to the family mage, and their own strength is drained as needed in order to power the required spells.
In the lower classes, however, witchcraft is feared and something to be punished. A person accused of witchcraft is tried and examined, and if found guilty, is committed to a witches’ asylum — permanently. It’s a scary, gruesome fate.
The main character in Witchmark is Dr. Miles Singer. A son of the powerful Hensley family, Miles fled home years earlier to join the army and pursue a medical education. He let it be known that he was killed in the vicious war with Laneer; meanwhile, he actually returned home to the city of Kingston, where he works in psychiatric medicine at a veterans’ hospital.
When a dying man, claiming to have been poisoned, identifies Miles as a Starred One — someone gifted with magic — he sets off a chain reaction that leads to Miles becoming embroiled in investigating the possible murder, as well as strange occurrences involving war veterans, otherworldly interest in missing souls, and dire scheming and jockeying for political power among the nobility. He also becomes unwillingly reintroduced to his estranged family and forced to participate in their power plays.
Something sinister is happening behind the scenes, threatening all of Aeland society, and with an unexpected companion, it’s up to Miles to figure it out before it’s too late, even at the risk of his own life.
Witchmark is an engaging read, thanks especially to Miles. Miles is a complex character, with his aristocratic background, his war service and resulting psychological damage, and his commitment to treating and supporting the wounded veterans in his care. His compassion makes him a sympathetic character, one whom it’s easy to root for.
There’s an enigmatic love interest who is very interesting, but I don’t feel as though I understood enough about this individual, their powers, and what they represent.
That brings me to my chief complaint about Witchmark: The world-building is insufficient, from my point of view.
There are a lot of names and terms thrown around — Invisibles, Secondaries, Amaranthines, Solace — which only get minimal explanations. I liked what I saw of this world, but felt like I was missing a deeper knowledge of the types of power, the mystical elements, and more. I often felt like I was trying to catch up, but I think this was because of the lack of specifics in some key areas. I think we’re meant to get a feel for this world and its societies through the plot of the story, but I couldn’t help feeling as though I needed more in order to truly become immersed and connected.
There are two more books in the Kingston Cycle, and I do plan to continue. I like the characters and the overarching story enough to want to see what happens next. I’m hoping that I get deeper into the trilogy, some of the more confusing elements will become clearer.