witch king

Monday, June 26, 2023 | | 0 comments
One of my most successful reading recommendations (and most successful sci-fi series out there right now!) in recent years is Martha Wells’ Murderbot series. I got my dad and several friends hooked on it and never looked back. While I haven’t read any of Wells’ other work, I’ve heard good things about her fantasy fiction for… decades?! When my preorder of Witch King came in (and Wells is now at auto-buy status, because OF COURSE) I didn’t put it off until summer – I read it immediately and loved it.


witch king by martha wells book cover
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 go 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.

Kai is a demon who can never go back home, thanks to the mysterious and awful conquering Hierarchs. In the process of dominating the world as Kai knew it, the Hierarchs also destroyed his culture, family, and changed the course of the future. Although Kai himself can’t die, he also can’t go back to “before” and the innocence of youth. That’s the past. And now Kai has to deal with deception and betrayal in the present too – who tried to murder and trap him forever in a watery tomb? He’ll need to quickly eliminate suspects, gather allies, and survive those hunting him.


It's been a minute since I read a truly EPIC fantasy – one with so many characters that you need a cast list at the front of the book, and a map to keep track of the scope of their adventures. Wells asks the reader to immediately dive into her epic, and to juggle dual perspectives of baby Kai of the past and betrayed Kai of the present. It is gripping reading – after all, the past is slowly being unraveled and understood, and the present is all about figuring out who tried (and almost succeeded) in ending Kai. Kai himself has a limited omniscient perspective – he lived “the past,” but he wasn’t around for every single speck of it and didn’t get into the motivations of each of his allies and enemies. I wouldn’t recommend this read as an audiobook due to the sheer number of characters and the intermingling of past and present narratives, but I do think most everyone has the stamina to take it on, if willing to put in a little effort. You have Wells’ trademark loveable killers as a reward if you do!


So what are the tasting notes of this book? One of the most pervasive themes of Witch King is the effect and aftermath of empire, as seen through one demon’s eyes. Kai experiences profound personal loss and sees even more devastation in the world at large, but also (as an undying character) has unique hindsight/insight to evaluate both his own actions and those of others at a remove. Does outliving those who made the world as it is fundamentally change a person? It’s an interesting question, and one that Wells attempts to answer in the person of Kai.


Another important theme is that of found family, and what friendship is made of. Kai has trust issues after the murder attempt at the start of the book, and throughout the story he grapples with distrust and cynicism, while also longing to connect with those around him. The other characters that populate Witch King of course have their own desires and ends – and Wells does an excellent job of rounding them out and making the whole cast dynamic. I’d love to read a series of standalones based in this world – there is enough detail, backstory, and angst to fuel more stories!


One of the most interesting bits for me as a reader was unraveling what fueled the magic in Kai’s world. Magic = power, and of course the conquerors had their own sources, different than that of those they subjugated and destroyed. It was a complex and interesting puzzle. And a final note, I loved the way Wells played with gender and social constructs related to it – I feel like I need some visual aids (quick, someone go make fan art!) to really picture it all. But regardless, it was unputdownable.


In all, Witch King is an epic fantasy for those who love thinking about power, rebellion, and the different ways that humans respond to terrible events. In Kai, Wells has created a sharp-edged but lovable immortal who reluctantly charms both his book compatriots and readers.


Recommended for: fans of Martha Wells, and those who enjoy reading speculative epics in fully realized worlds like those of Herbert, Sanderson, Novik, etc.

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