Sunday, July 07, 2024

Book: Which King? That King!

 Witch King by Martha Wells, Tordotcom, 2023

Provenance: Christmas gift from the Lovely Bride. She also got me a copy of the latest Murderbot book, by the same author, but I went with this one first. And while I have a lot of other books in the reviewing queue, I thought to jump this one forward while it is still fresh in my mind.

Review: This was a very enjoyable, challenging and rewarding read. It is a fantasy novel, but it bends (but not breaks) a lot of the traditional tropes, creating a distinct world and and engaging story. I'll admit, this was the bedside book for several months, and was put aside three times due to its complexity, but always lured me back.

The story is told in two parts, a present and flashback. Kaiisteron, Prince of the Fourth House, is a demon, a otherworldly race that takes over the recently deceased to live in this world. In the past narrative, his plains-dwelling adopting people were overrun by powerful invaders, the Hierarchs, and he was taken prisoner. The story there is his escape of bondage how he helped create a rebellion. In the present, some 60 years later, the Hierarchs have been defeated and a new empire is rising, Kai awakens from being imprisoned again by persons unknown, alongside Zeide Daiyahah, a Witch. In order to figure out what is going on, the two need to find Zeide's wife, who is a Marshall of the Blessed Lands, and has also vanished without a trace.

That's about as organized as I can make it. Wells has created a world with extremely diverse peoples and types of magic. The demons can drain life, and Kai learns to transfer between bodies as well. Witches are the progeny of Demon/Mortal mating, and have elemental powers. The Blessed are angelic figures pulling from a central power core for their spells.  And the conquering Hierarchs use as similar central well of power, but pull from death magic. And that's pretty much the reason for invasion, which eliminates a host of unique cultures, and gives them more power from their deaths. 

Kai is our viewpoint character, in that we only learn about the world through him, and he shares only as much as he needs to. There is not a lot of exposition here - no explanation of a timeline, no lecture on how the world came to be, no moment when one character turns to another and say "As you know ...". There is a list of Dramatis Personae at the front of the book, a needed tool since there are a large number of allies and enemies for Kai and Zeide. And there is a map, is a bit more perfunctory than your standard issue fantasy, giving me general locations with a lot of space in between.  

And we are dealing with two Kais, here. In the past, Kai is swept up by the Hierarchs' assault. In the present, the Hierarchs have been overthrown and a new Rising World coalition has formed, verging on becoming its own empire. But you have to put that together, and that requires a bit more from the readers than your standard fantasy. Even the intro italicized excerpts from in-world histories fronting the chapters makes little sense in and of themselves, and only when I finished the book did I go back and re-read those sections, just to get a handle on what the world-building was. Wells shows and not tells, and what she shows is often colored by Kai' viewpoints in the two eras.

And there are two eras to Kai's personality as well. Past-Kai is a junior demon coming to terms with his role among his people, and as such more innocent. Present-Kai has lived through an empire's rise and its fall and is much more cynical and untrusting. You can see how the character had grown (and been harmed) over the interim. And it is not impenetrable as, say, aGene Wolfe novel but it takes some awareness to understand.

Magic is similarly not explained, but demonstrated. Spells are intentions, magicians are expositors, constructs are amalgams or chimera. Its more than just a renaming, but rather a reconfiguring of traditional tropes, and you the reader are expected to keep up. 

AND Wells turns a couple fantasy-tropes upside down, literally such as when Kai talks about the Top of the World being the south pole. Pale-skinned folk come from the colder southern islands. There are a lot of matriarchies, which are not presented as exceptions but as norms. Gender preference and identity is fluid. Women in Kai's orbit are the majority, not the token minority. 

And, all this works. Wells is fantastic writer who has created an involved world with a complex story to it. She skips of the epic bits - how the Hierarchs specifically captured Kai, and how the new alliance drives out the Hierarchs. It concentrates on the important bits for Kai - survival in the past, and discovery of a conspiracy in the present. As I said, I put the book aside several time, but each time I re-engaged, I found myself swept up in it. 

This one is up for a Hugo, and yeah, I can see that. It is a doorstop fantasy novel, and I am relieved to know that it is (currently) only a solitaire. While I really like Wells' shorter, more contained works, the presentation of world and the flow of the narration is excellent, and I would not be surprised if it took the award this year.

But yes, it does put demands on you, the reader. And it rewards them. 

More later.