Witchmark

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 30 Jun 2018

Member Reviews

This is a beautiful love story, with an engaging magic system and led by a political intrigue story. Just wonderful. I'm especially enamoured by it now that I know it's written by a Canadian who lives near me! I'm hoping that when I get my physical copy (as I read an eARC) that I can find a local event where it can be signed at! As always the highest compliment I can give any book is to purchase it for my physical library. Especially when I buy an ARC! This one is more than worthy of my shelf. 

Plot
There is a perfect political story in Witchmark. It has just the right amount of complexity and depth to allow for this story to feel light enough while still having depth. I'd call this a good 'fantasy beach read' if you like a mystery to be your relaxing genre. The parallels between the discrimination and fear our lead man feels and the plight of many escaping WWII cannot be ignored. It is done with a grace and balance that felt like it was still a fantasy story but giving homage to a very dark time in human history.
I can't say much more about the plot without giving anything away. So you'll just have to read it to find out! 

Characters
Our leading man is so well written. He has enough emotion to feel real, but still maintains a closed off feel that many men in modern society seem to have. As such I felt like he could easily have been many of the older men I know who have been through tough times. Unwilling to really share any of their trauma and trying to hide in the middle of their own success. His romantic entanglement with another man just emphasizes his discomfort and uncertainty of his own emotions; and is just adorable in so many ways! 
I especially love the attempt our leading man makes to stay low-key while still being successful enough to save lives at his hospital and advocate for the veterans program he supports. 
Additionally our other characters all feel like real people. A couple of them are clearly built off typical fantasy archetypes but that is okay with me as they have their purpose and aren't all that important to the overall story. 

Magic
One of the best parts of C.L. Polk's story is that the magical system is so interesting. It's easy to understand; while complex enough that it's difficult to know who has magic and who does not. I especially like moments in the book when our leading man starts to really 'see' the world in a certain way and the bond he starts to have with a fellow magic user. These moments are very special in their own and couldn't have been as great without a smart magical system to support them. 

Overall
If you don't read the last chapter, Witchmark could easily be a wonderful little stand-alone. And honestly I might have preferred that. As someone who is getting burnt out by long series I felt like Witchmark had a perfect premise to be a one-off. That said, I'll happily revisit our leading man and his tortured emotions in the future. Maybe that actually makes this an even better fantasy story in that it feels like a standalone (doesn't get too messy too fast) so that it reads easily and yet can still easily be built on for a series. 
Whatever the reason for it, I adored Polk's story and characters. It's just the icing on the cake that she lives near me and I may one day get to meet her! 

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.
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This was tropey, but in the best way possible. It wasn't the most original plot ever, but C.L. Polk DID IT SO WELL. The worldbuilding was A+. The characters felt real and fleshed-out. And the themes of agency and the exploration of classism and privilege were done so well. Five stars!
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I loved this book! It had all the right elements for a magical fantasy adventure, but with the added bonus of having an LGBTQ+ main character. It was lovely to read a different type of MC. The romance was beautiful and the adventure was exciting. All in all, I really enjoyed this book and I would recommend it to anyone who likes historical fiction, fantasy, magic, and love.
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The first half of the book unfortunately didnt hold my attention so that when things did pick up I didnt feel the same pull because I had found the beginning to be so tedious
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What a wonderful read! So original and so disturbing. This book engaged me and kept me riveted. Not one turn of the page was predictable. I loved the magic system, even in it's corruption, because it was unique and visceral. Definitely add this author to you read pile.
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This book has been sitting on my kindle waiting for me to read it for quite some time. Now, my only wish is that I’d gotten to it sooner. Witchmark by C. L. Polk is an absolutely fantastic novel about magic, love, family, war, and the bonds between siblings.

Our narrator is Miles, a young man who ran away to medical school, was swept up in the war between Aeland and Laneer, and now practices psychology in a veteran’s hospital instead of the field surgery he started with. But when a fellow witch is poisoned and dies on Miles’ operating table he is drawn back into the world of magic he was once desperate to escape. His freedom is at risk, fate is closing in on him, and Miles is tasked with the poisoned man’s dying wish – to expose everything.

This is a murder mystery, a tale of magic, a story about the abuse of power, and a love story. Though it begins with many threads, all of the plot lines weave together seamlessly into an exciting, fast paced tale. All of the right notes are hit. The characters are wonderful, three-dimensional characters. The world is fleshed out. The magic system is unique. And I cannot recommend Witchmark enough. 

The story is set in Aeland, a country very similar to Edwardian England at the end of the First World War. These similarities are used to the book’s advantage. We generally understand the society and technology of the age, and little time is taken out for the sort of long descriptions and explanations that long time fantasy readers are used to. The real difference between our world and this imagined one is the prolific use of magic, even if it is frowned upon. Witches are common in Aeland, though they are said to inevitably go insane and are quickly locked away in asylums. Miles is a witch, one who has run from his family and the fate that awaited him … right into the middle of a war he’d rather do anything to forget. 

It is from Miles’s first person narration that the story is told. The majority of the story is told over the span of about a week. During this time, Miles is expected to turn out all of the patients in his ward to make way for the soldiers returning home from war regardless of their mental states. The poisoned man who died in his care, a fellow witch no less, entrusted Miles with his dying breath to expose the truth and finish his work. A task Miles must complete with the extraordinarily handsome Sir Tristan, with whom he is head over heels. 

The stakes are ever increasing on multiple fronts. The family Miles left long behind barge back into his life. The puzzle of the poisoned man takes dramatic, unforeseen turns. Tristan has an extremely important quest of his own. And Miles and Tristan’s mutual attraction isn’t something that can be ignored. This is the sort of book that can’t be put down. It’s fast paced with dramatic stakes for all involved with characters that are very easy to love (or hate). 

More than this, it is a story with a lot of heart. It is a story that talks about family, and how far a person is willing to go for them, even when the personal cost is great. It’s a story about sibling bonds, the things that test them, and the things that might break them. It’s a story about love and acceptance. Heartstrings are tugged, sometimes when it isn’t expected. 

Though the pacing is fast, it isn’t necessarily at breakneck speed. Sufficient time is given to explore the characters and their relationships with one another. The ending does ramp up in speed and tension, as most climaxes do, keeping readers on the edge of their seat. 

I cannot recommend reading Witchmark by C.L. Polk enough. This is an amazing story of magic, love, and mystery. It is the sort of book that has something in it for everyone. I adored this novel and cannot wait for the next book in The Kingston Cycle.
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Thoroughly enjoyable - i think I was most entranced by the voice - suppressing his 'gift' for so long - well, it is illegal - he is drawn in against his will - his powers as a doctor are enhanced but thisbrings other trouble.  His partner both knows and does not know. It's a sometimes gruesome but engaging story of coming to accept yourself. Really skilful ...
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Loveable, awesome characters.
A brilliantly conceived and realised magical system.
A paranormal murder mystery.
This book has everything my fantasy loving heart needed to get completely invested!
More please!
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Witchmark, by C. L. Polk (Tor) is one of the most unusual and compelling love stories I’ve read this year. The setting, very much like England in the throes of national PTSD following the First World War, a magic-yielding aristocracy, a conflicted hero, and so forth, are familiar enough to be recognizable, yet integrated into a freshly imagined world. 

A brutal war has dragged on to end in a draconian peace. Men returning from the front are all too often shattered in mind as well as body, although the effects of their trauma are poorly understood. In our own world, WW I veterans were said to suffer from “battle stress” or “shell shock,” and both were associated with cowardice or lack of moral strength. In this world, however, some of them carry a spiritual darkness within them, visible only to those with magical sight. One such is our hero, working as a physician under an assumed name to escape the enslavement of being a “second-class” magician. He alone makes a connection between the dark presence and the reports of his patients that a mysterious he wants them to murder their loved ones. Creating a metaphor for dissociation born out of guilt and trauma is one of the things I love about fantasy. In this case the darkness is also a real, separate thing, related to the retaliation plotted by the losing side in the war, but again, I found myself wondering at the parallels between Polk’s vengeful, decimated vanquished and the rise of the Nazi Party following the Treaty of Versailles. One of the hallmarks of thoughtful fantasy is how it invites us to look at our own world, our own lives, through new perspectives.

Witchmark, however, is not at all a diatribe about the root causes of war. It’s an intensely personal story of a man who, fleeing one sort of persecution (the exploitation of his magical talents), dedicates himself to healing and then, without meaning to, gets caught up in increasingly larger crises. Through this all, he forges a connection-of-the-heart with a man of another race, an Amaranthine, this world’s version of Fae. Like Fae, they are immortal or nearly so, and are said to be incapable to loving as humans do. All of this makes the slowly evolving love story between Miles Singer and Tristan Hunter both tender and bittersweet.

The book has a lot of different elements, from the murder mystery that launches the action to the politics of the hospital where Miles works, to the aristocratic magic-wielders who subjugate those of lesser talents, to the international politics, to the bicycles criss-crossing the city. It would all be too much in the hands of a less skillful author, but Polk introduces each aspect of the setting, characters, traditions, and drama in such an easy, natural fashion, they all fit effortlessly.
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Ok, I had heard about the book and thought it sounded interesting. Then *everyone* started talking about how awesome it was, and...I was hesitant. Is it *really* that good? Or is it just riding a wave and I'm going to read it and find that it just doesn't live up to my expectations based on everyone else's excitement? Short answer? I can see why everyone has been raving about it. 

Here we have a man who is believed dead by his family so he won't be enslaved to them. His magic is considered second-rate, a toy. Nothing worth mentioning - so people like him are bound to more powerful mages so they can use them sort of like a battery. Instead, he ran away and joined the war. Became a doctor, kept his head down - until a dying man saw him for what he really was. Then he has a choice - keep pretending and watching his patients murder their families and themselves? Or "come out" and have a chance to find out what was causing it and maybe even fix it? This book has it all - magic, war, murder, mystery, and romance - and all of it done well. Such a beautiful debut, and well worth the accolades.

(Already posted on Goodreads w/ a link on Twitter)
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Witchmark is a debut with a lot to offer fantasy readers who may be looking for any number of different elements in their next read. It's got a historically-inspired secondary world setting, in which we eventually come to learn of a complex magic system. The plot starts out, interestingly enough, as a murder mystery, then grows to encompass the unearthing of a much larger-scale conspiracy. And at its heart is a touching, sort-of-paranormal m/m romance.

The setting has a bit of an Edwardian England feel, with turn-of-the-20th-century technology fueled by new, modern aether-based power instead of electricity. Aeland is welcoming home victorious soldiers from a war abroad, and some of them are under the care of our protagonist, who calls himself Miles Singer, having fled a previous life and identity to become a military doctor. Miles is treating patients for troubling psychiatric symptoms, while also keeping the secret of his magical healing gift. In this world, members of the lower classes who are discovered to have magic are considered witches, and are institutionalized, since the common belief is that they all eventually and regrettably go mad. Amongst the upper class, however, it's a very different story, though the secret of the nobility's mages is kept from the public.

The story kicks off when a dying man, himself a witch, arrives at Miles's hospital with knowledge of his magical ability and true identity, claims to have been poisoned, and begs Miles to find his murderer. Another man, Tristan Hunter, sees it all, and persuades Miles to assist him in solving the mystery. Mr. Hunter is mysterious, gorgeous, and not at all what he appears to be, with a mission much broader in scope than just the one murder case. Together, he and Miles dive deep into a web of Aeland's intrigue, push the limits of Miles's magical understanding, and also develop a slow-burn romantic attachment.

There were some aspects of this story that appealed more to my personal reading tastes than others. I enjoyed that there were incredibly high stakes without needing to rely on action scenes to move the plot. I am less a fan of complex magic systems that require protagonists to spend a lot of time learning things about the workings magic, although I know there are many fantasy readers who would disagree. And then the paranormal/supernatural angle was a whole lot of other stuff on top of it all. I enjoyed both the mystery and romance plots a lot, but thought that it took way too long for Miles to realize the importance of what he and he alone could tell was ailing his psychiatric patients. To me it was obvious from the beginning.

I see that there is now a planned sequel to this book. I'm glad to hear it. Witchmark works as a standalone character arc, but it ends with a lot of uncertainty as to what's next for the nation of Aeland. And that's a lot of work put into a magic system for just one short book. I'm looking forward to the next one!
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When I first heard about this book, I was intrigued by the setting, and the worldbuilding was by far the most interesting part of this novel. Unfortunately I underestimated how important the romance was going to be to the plot. While I applaud the fact that queer love stories are gaining greater visibility in mainstream SciFi/Fantasy fiction, for me personally the romance between Miles and Tristan did not really feel believable and detracted from the overall story. But I am still interested in what further novels in this series may bring.
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Witchmark is a little bit of a lot of things -- a romance, a mystery, a family power struggle against a fantasy background, dealing with social upheaval and war... It feels like quite an odd mixture of things if I think about it from outside, but while I was reading it I had no quibbles.

Miles is the only character who I feel is really well fleshed out, and I really could use knowing more about Tristan before I can really fully buy into the romance and the Big Romantic Thing that happens near the end. Grace is... interesting, and surprisingly weak -- and I don't mean that in a disparaging way. It's just that she comes along and takes command and she's meant to be the strong one, and yet she's so led by her family and by adhering to the social customs. It's interesting as a character study, and I think there was a surprisingly good job done of making her likeable if only she wouldn't participate in what's expected of her.

Everything builds together pretty well for the finale, except maybe that romantic plot. I felt like we needed less of the magical attractiveness and more of the two talking to one another and figuring each other out: there wasn't enough to make me really root for them. It's the interplay between Grace and Miles that really made the story, for me.

I've kind of been avoiding getting this review written, because I wasn't wholly sure what to say. I wasn't as wowed as I hoped to be, but I think on reflection it was enjoyable and I'd read more. If I went in for half-stars, this would probably get another 0.5.
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Witchmark is a phenomenal book - enthralling, fast-paced and a plot that keeps you reading (long past when you should be asleep)
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I'm not quite sure how to best describe, or even talk about, Witchmark. It's a war novel focused on the home front. It's a mystery. It's a novel strongly focused on privilege. It has something revealed very late in the novel that I really want to talk about and in reference to another historical and famous science fiction story, but I can't because it would give away far too much of the novel and a capsule review isn't the place for that. It's a romance. It's queer. It's quietly fantastic in most sense of the word. There's magic and medicine, secret societies and secret identities. Witchmark is gentle only in the sense that there are distinct manners in the characterization and it's set in a quasi World War II era England where those manners and being proper matter (but in a completely different not at all England but still sort of England world). The rest of the novel is a continual kick in the gut laced with moments of grace and love. Witchmark is a lovely novel and an excellent debut from C.L. Polk
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Witchmark, by début author C. L. Polk, is an intriguing blend of history, science fiction, fantasy and romance.  In Aeland, a fictionalized Edwardian England, aristocratic families use their magical gifts to keep a stranglehold on the power and wealth of the nation, whilst relegating anyone outside their sphere of power to a life of slavery, an asylum, or death.

Sir Christopher Hensley was born into the aristocracy, but as a ‘Secondary’, he was unwilling to bind himself to his sister and amplify her power as a Storm-Singer; he fled his family and went to war instead.  When Witchmark begins, Sir Christopher has hidden his magical powers, reinventing himself as Dr. Miles Singer, a physician and psychiatrist at Beauregard Veterans Hospital.  As Miles, he’s careful to hide his magical skills (his ‘tricks’) as a healer from patients and staff, but veterans of the war between Aeland and Laneer are returning home with mysterious, violent homicidal rages – strangers to their families and friends – and Miles is desperate to understand why.

His investigation gains urgency after a fatally poisoned man is brought to the hospital asking for him.  The man, accompanied by the handsome stranger who found him, somehow knows of Miles’ healing gift and his Witchmark.  He tells Miles he’s been poisoned and begs him to find the killer.  When Miles returns to investigate the following day, the body is gone.  He reluctantly teams up with Tristan Hunter, the stranger who brought the dying man to the hospital, and they eventually discover a sinister link between the dying man and his patients.   As Miles and Tristan (who has important secrets of his own) work together to find the killer – who always seems to be one step ahead of them – secrets, family loyalties, and betrayals plague them at every turn.

AAR staffers Em Wittmann (a novice fantasy reader) and Shannon Dyer (who reads the genre regularly) both read Witchmark and are here to share their thoughts.

EBW:  When I read the blurb for Witchmark, I couldn’t wait to read it.  Unfortunately, the author assumes her readers already understand why Miles is hiding his magic.  I didn’t!  Later on we learn that because he’s a Secondary, he would have been forced to into a life of servitude to his sister (essentially functioning as a battery), and the author illustrates what that life is like, but I felt like a primer or prologue to the Witchmark world would have been supremely helpful.  I struggled to empathize with the character and his secrets until I understood why he was keeping them – and even then, I don’t understand whether he was a witch or a mage, or why his sister was a Storm-Singer.  Did you?

SD: I agree with you that a prologue or some other kind of introduction would have been useful. Fortunately, I did manage to catch on quickly to the reasons behind Miles’ desire to keep his magic a secret. However, I’m still not sure I understand the distinction between witches and mages. Perhaps it has something to do with social class, but that’s just a guess on my part.

EBW:  I don’t understand the distinction either – or for that matter, why someone is a Storm-Singer and not also a witch or a mage?  I guessed birth order – but Miles is the older sibling.  And it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with gender either.  I rarely tsk over editing/vetting – but in this case, I think the editor should have caught this problem and encouraged the author to elaborate on the magical hierarchy.  Since the series is predicated on Miles and magic, not understanding Aeland and its hierarchy is a major downfall of this novel.  I was frustrated from the first page, and found it challenging to enjoy the other elements of the story because of it.

SD: I found some of the parallels between the fictional world the author created and the world you and I are actually living in to be quite intriguing. True, our lives aren’t touched by magic, but we do deal with racism and other forms of hatred on a pretty regular basis. Were there things about the world that reminded you of real life, or did this feel like total fantasy to you?

EBW:  The parallels are intriguing – and timely!  Look at how our veterans are treated today.  So many are suffering from various forms of PTSD, but the amount of money invested in helping them is a pittance compared to what’s poured into our military and defense budgets.  Waging war is big business; treating our veterans is a sideshow.

I liked how familiar the world felt and how easy it is to envision the world in which Miles lives – but again, since magic is the differentiator, I wish it played a bigger role in the story.

SD:  You make some very good points here.

Now, Let’s talk about the mystery for a bit. I found it to be quite captivating. I wanted Miles and Tristan to get to the bottom of things, and when they did, I was surprised by how things turned out. I obviously don’t want to give anything away, but did you find the mystery satisfying? Are you glad the author chose to weave it into the plot?

EBW:  I was intrigued by the mystery and the connection to the dead man.  I also wanted Miles and Tristan to find his killer – but I had a hard time accepting Miles willingness to partner up with Tristan based on little more than a chance meeting over a dying man.  Their easy, fast partnership felt very contrary to the secret life Miles is living.  The climax of their investigation had me quickly turning pages to get to the secret behind the dying man, and I thought the explanation for the murder worked in the context of the story.  Unfortunately, everything about their investigation and the climactic scene with the deceased’s mother was a bit too easy breezy.  Also, Miles FLED his family, but he seems awfully willing to believe the best of them once they reappear in his life.  Why?  He went TO THE FRONT LINE OF WAR to be free of them, but based on little more than a conversation, he willingly makes himself vulnerable to subjugation once again.  PUHLEEZE.

SD: The thing with his family was really strange for me as well, especially the way he related to his sister. He was understandably against being bound to her, but he didn’t seem too eager to get her out of his life once she reappeared.

EBW:  Can we talk about the relationship between Tristan and Miles for a bit?  I liked both men.  They liked each other.  You were okay with their insta-lust and devotion to each other based on very little time in each other’s company?  I liked them as a crime solving duo – with the chance of something developing later in the series.  I didn’t like how their storyline ended.  The suspense/mystery was enough for me in this first volume.

SD: I think we interpreted the relationship in two different ways. Miles and Tristan have a pretty strong attraction to one another, and they definitely took steps to act on that attraction. However, the end of the book left me with the impression that their relationship would continue to develop over time. Instalove is a big deal in a lot of fantasy series, so maybe I’ve just become accustomed to it since fantasy makes up a very large part of my reading life.

EBW:  I want to tell you I loved this fictional mash-up of WWI era historical, science fiction/fantasy, and (a very subtle) queer romance, but I didn’t.  However, I was intrigued.  The idea behind the novel is great, the principal characters are compelling, and the murder mystery that sets the series in motion is clever and interesting, but the execution is poor.  There simply isn’t enough exposition to explain the events as they unfold, and readers are forced to simply ‘go along with it,’ to keep moving through the story.  The romance between the principal characters – really, it’s a friendship that abruptly transitions into a love affair – is underdeveloped, and – gasp – unnecessary.  My final grade is a C+.

SD: I actually don’t agree. I found myself caught up in the story. I found the relationship between Miles and Tristan to be quite sweet. True, the novel could have used some more careful editing, perhaps some tightening up, but overall, it’s a book I’m happy I read. I’d give it a B.
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In a setting reminiscent of World War I Britain a former military doctor and psychologist at a veteran’s facility is just trying help people and keep from being noticed. If his magical gifts were recognized he’d either be locked up in an asylum or given back the family he ran from years before to live as glorified battery for use with “higher” magics--enslaved to his father or sister. But everything changes when a stranger brings an emergency case to the hospital and the victim recognizes him and his gifts. Instead of turning him in, the stranger wants his help solving what appears to be murder. I read this in one-sitting, and loved every second! It’s a fabulous blend of mystery, adventure, magic and a touch of romance.
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WITCHMARK is a sweet story full of magic, bicycles, romance, and mystery. It'll delight fans of Edwardian England, though it's based in an alternate world where the war between Aeland and Laneer impacted lives and changed fates. I was immediately drawn into WITCHMARK as it jumps straight into the main mystery.

However, my attention began to drift a few chapters in. There's very little description or buildup in WITCHMARK. Dialogue is relied upon for both character development and worldbuilding. Terms are thrown around without much explanation. Polk trusts the reader to fill in the blanks, but I often found myself distracted with questions the text didn't quite answer when it came to the war, the government, and the society.

Despite my complaints, WITCHMARK is a romance at its very core, and it does that romance well. The world is unique and intriguing, and Miles' POV is engaging. And as there is a sequel incoming, many of my questions may yet be answered.
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OH. MY. GOD.
I LOVED.
THIS BOOK.

Once upon a time, the author, C.L. Polk, was in our book club server on Discord, and she told us she had this book coming out and it was right up my alley, so I added it. 

When I started it, I was afraid it wouldn’t be like I thought it was, and it wasn’t, but in a good way. After about the first 20 pages, I didn’t want to put it down and the time not reading it, I spent thinking about it.

The story is full of magic and relationships and war. Miles is a runaway witch, who joined the army to escape his cruel father and fate of becoming his sister’s Secondary. He spends his time aiding the broken soldier who’ve returned home from the war as a doctor. There are different “levels” of witch, and the lower ones, Secondaries, are used as literal batteries for the Mages. But the country they’re in, Aeland, doesn’t accept witches into society anymore and sends those who fail the test to asylums, and what we find there is astonishing. Miles is lucky to have hidden so long, but his freedom is running short.

I really like the atmosphere and feeling of this book. It’s set in a not-really-Edwardian-England place, a fictional place, but it’s so familiar. The world building isn’t extensive, but you totally get a sense of what it’s like to live there.

I spent a lot of the book dying from the sexual tension between the main characters. I love Miles and Tristan so much. Tristan is the epitome of a Good Boy and I want him to live a long healthy existence. And Miles. He’s kinda foolhardy, but precious and deserves to he happy because his family SUCKS. And Grace is a jerk, that’s all I’m gonna say.

Overall, a stunning debut novel. I can’t wait to see where this story goes. I’m not sure if the author is planning a trilogy or more, but I’ll be first in line to get them, that’s for sure.
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This is an alternate history novella set around the time of WWI. There is a rich magic user class that protects version of England from bad weather. The Storm Singers link with less powerful magic users known as Secondaries. Miles left home and joined the army to become a doctor and use his healing gift instead of being bonded to his sister as a secondary. When a dying man shows up at the veteran’s hospital he is working as psychiatrist his world is turned upside down. Turns out his family did know he was there and they are bringing him back to the family business. Even as his sister has the best of intentions, things don’t go as planned. Miles is also trying to find out who poisoned the man that found him and figure out who is the bystander that helped the dying man to his door.
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