Book: Witch King
Author: Martha Wells
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Synopsis : “Kai-Enna is the witch king, though he hasn’t always been, and he hasn’t even always been Kai-Enna!
After being murdered, his consciousness dormant and unaware of the passing of time while confined in an elaborate water trap, Kai wakes to find a lesser mage attempting to harness Kai’s magic to his own advantage. That was never going to end well.
But why was Kai imprisoned in the first place? What has changed in the world since his assassination? And why does the Rising World coalition appear to be growing in influence?
Kai will need to pull his allies close and draw on all his pain magic if he is to answer even the least of these questions.
He’s not going to like the answers.”
Review : Martha Wells is no first timer at the fantasy rodeo, her list of past works spans an entire front page in Witch King, including several long-term series, and honestly you can tell this is the work of a person deeply familiar with the inner workings of creating a successful fantasy world. It was a joy to read.
Like many of the advanced reader copies I receive, Witch King came with a little letter from the author. In it, Wells explains her motivation for creating this book: it was conceived in the early months of the pandemic, attempting to visualize what it would look like to see a “conquering genocidal attacker” ultimately defeated by an uprising of ordinary people (or semi-ordinary). She wanted to visualize what that world would look like during the attack and several decades later, hence the perfect setting for a fantasy novel full of immortal beings and beings who can live incredibly long lifespans.
Witch King is written from a singular point of view, but it’s told by jumping back and forth between the present (several decades following the defeat of an attacker) and the past (during the actual uprising). Kai-Enna is an immortal underworld demon prince inhabiting a mortal body, the only way he is able to exist in the upper world. Thanks to a treaty that his half mortal-half immortal grandmother brokered between the Grass Kings, a nomadic people group in the upper world, and the demons of the underworld, Kai is able to partake in a sacred ritual that allows him to enter into a recently deceased mortal body. This ritual allows the loved ones of the deceased to hear the final thoughts and words of their beloved while also giving them a demon who will both learn the ways of the upper world in order to fully understand and appreciate mortal life, and bring protection to the clan they’ve entered into a relationship with. Because Kai is still a demon, he will be able to live as long as he pleases inside a mortal body without being wounded thanks to his ability to heal inordinately fast, and the only real give-away that he isn’t mortal are his all black eyes.
Kai is still a young demon (and living in a young mortal body) when the Heirarchs, a ruling class of people from an unknown land, take over and conquer the known world. The Grass Kings fight back, but being a nomadic group of people, they are unaware of the reach the Heirarchs have, the weapons they’ve acquired, and the magical tools at their disposal. The Heirarchs, unbeknownst to Kai or his mortal family, have a super weapon that can knock the life out of a mortal and inflict incredible pain on an immortal, allowing demons to be captured and imprisoned.
Wells returns us to these moments of war throughout the book, jumping back to Kai’s former body, his former life, and his fight to overturn the Heirarchs. In the present moment, some 60 years in the future, we see that the Heirarchs have been defeated, the passage from the upper world to the underworld permanently blocked, and Kai, though a demon, is referred to as the Witch King. As the book begins, we find Kai’s consciousness awakening outside of a deceased mortal body he’s been occupying for several years – no longer the young body of the Grass Kings. His body has died, but he has been imprisoned in a tower of water, the only real achilles heel for a demon. Because of this prison, he’s been in a suspended state, unaware of how much time has passed or where his friends and chosen family are located. We spend the rest of the book reuniting this family and seeking the remaining members who have gone missing, all the while eerily retracing his steps from the past when he worked to defeat the Heirarchs.
Wells has created a book that functions on multiple fantasy levels; it can be read alone, it ties up nicely in the end, and we get to see how Kai defeated the Heirarchs in the past, and worked to defeat a growing world alliance that’s attempting to create an empire in the present; I believe it will also function as an excellent book one of several and I look forward to seeing where Wells goes in the future. And I hope she does, because while this book didn’t end on a cliffhanger or leave you wishing for more of the story, there are pieces and parts of the past that remain untold, certain adventures to be had now that the family is reunited, and we make it to the end of the book without finding out definitively how Kai came to earn the monicker “Witch King”. While it can be inferred, I’m craving the full story and I have hope that Wells will add another book to this title and make it a series.
Advice: If you love fantasy, if you enjoy getting wrapped up in a world of unearthly creatures, if you love an excellent retelling of past events, this is it. It’s well written, it’s easy to understand, and it resonates with current events without being in your face or even hard to read. This book uses gender-neutral pronouns for several characters without being fussy about it and exhibits a great deal of inclusivity as well, making it a must read for so many reasons. I highly recommend it.