Witchmark

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 30 Jun 2018

Member Reviews

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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Witchmark is hands down one of the best books I’ve read this year. On the surface a pretty standard historically set fantasy, in practise it’s a sweet M/M romance, a steampunk murder mystery and deep meditation on choice and freedom. I read the book in one sitting and totally didn’t care when it shied a bit too close to obvious tropes because it was just so well done. In fact anyone wanting to learn how to do tropes right should read this book. I loved Miles – he was such a sweetheart. I loved the aesthetic. This was fun as well as cleverly plotted book. I can’t wait for more from the author.
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Though not actually set in WWI (or on our earth at all), the setting is very reminiscent of London during that time period.  Our hero, Miles, is a witch with healing abilities, but must hide that fact from everyone, and his current location from his family.  Witchcraft is illegal and reviled, although, unbeknownst to most of the population, all the members of the nobility are witches, who use their abilities in elaborate ceremonies to control the weather and ensure prosperity for their nation.  Unfortunately for Miles, ONLY the ability to control weather is valued, and witches from noble families (like his) use children with other magical abilities only as batteries for their weather-controlling siblings...hence, his escape to the army, and, eventually, a faked death so he can plot his own course, caring for the veterans he once fought beside as a seemingly average psychologist/neurologist.  

His careful plans are disrupted, however, by several seemingly unrelated events - a powerful fairy brings another poisoned witch to his hospital, and demands his help in solving the mystery.  At the same time, more and more war veterans are being overtaken by a disease of the mind, which only Miles can see, which causes them to suddenly snap and murder everyone around them.  And then Miles' family finds him, as well...

The whole story is well-written and compelling, and presents a curiously timely reflection on what sacrifices are acceptable for the good of the many.
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I’m always on the lookout for a new Womxn of Color (WOC) author in the fantasy genre.  Thanks to NetGalley, I had the opportunity to read Witchmark by C. L. Polk just in time to celebrate #PrideMonth.

Dr. Miles Singer as a protagonist is a mixture of a really brave and a really paranoid person. It is a literary art to create backstories without info dumps in the middle of the narrative or add oddly placed facts in conversations. Polk’s mastery over character-building allows the story to unfold naturally. She creates a full and complex character that the reader will relate to in his attempts to separate from familial pressure and expectations. The voice of the protagonist is strong. I’m not sure it’s intended, but I found him humourous - much more like the friend who’s skeptical of everyone and just wants to live in peace. In spite of his reasonable suspicions, he still feels compelled to journey through a mystery and fulfill a promise made to a dying man. 

The handsome secondary protagonist, Tristan Hunter,  fits well within the background of the story while highlighting the best parts of Miles. In many ways, I suppose all relationships should exist in this manner. Tristan helps Miles realize inner truths while teaching Miles how to handle his own magic.  

The urban environment that surrounds the story line is cozy. I imagine bicycles, warm fires, buttered toast and sweet oranges eaten while planning out the next moves in the adventure. I wanted to be there and intrude upon the electric connection between Miles and Tristan. The romance was sweet, not overly done, or filled with sappy “I love you” scenes; yet, it still maintained a measure of steam worthy of a good summer read. 

The magical system was creative and didn’t lean on conventional understandings of fantasy. Polk’s use of innovative analogies to describe serious situations kept the book entertaining and easily digestible. I would like to get additional understanding of the legal or regulatory system of how magicals are “handled”. It’s a little light on that part, but this novel is the first in the series, so I suspect that further explanations will happen as the series unfolds. 

“They make slaves of you for the sake of their prosperity.”
-Tristan Hunter

One important discussion is the bad good person. Grace, the protagonist’s sister, realizes the cruelty of her family and exists as both her brother’s supporter and an enabler of her family’s actions. She is a willing participant in a system that gives her privilege and power - even if it comes at the cost of her dear brother’s freedom. This topic is relevant in today’s political climate. There are plenty of us that are silent in the face of the unethical treatment of refugees and immigrants. Silence ensures capitalist success by removing economic competition under the guise of “protecting our borders” or safeguarding the “common good”. We reduce the conversation to a “difference of opinion” which removes the accountability of those silent or in support of outrageous policies. Recently, y’alls president signed an executive order that “ends” family separation, and instead detains them all together ( serious side-eye). I suppose now that this order is signed we’ll see less coverage of crying babies as to not offend lily white hearts. But we can’t stop! We cannot be silent. We must be moved by the wrongdoing of a people and not only by images shared on an Instagram post. Don’t become the bad good guy. Speak up, Speak out!

“My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. ”
― Audre Lorde, The Cancer Journals 

_______________________________
Review submitted to https://www.booksandbrunchbookclub.com/ for future posting. Excerpt posted to goodreads
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Despite on paper having the perfect ingredients (Fantasy setting! Mystery! Romance! Queerness! Sibling relationship!), I thought WITCHMARK fell short on almost all of them. What I did enjoy was how the dialogues, and Miles’ inner thoughts, were interspersed with subtle clues, making the final revelations deducible but not too obvious (Real Villain notwithstanding, because that’s plain as day); I do love plays on language.

As for the rest, from the beginning it felt like I was supposed to be already familiar with its world and protagonist (I’ve noticed other readers mention that the book reads as “fanfiction,” which, having never personally read one, I took it to mean that both setting and characters are very lightly developed because a reader knows them and wouldn’t need much exposition). There’s a general lack of characterization and growth, and most of the conflict seems to be primarily, if not solely, external. Each character is a basic archetype, and that’s all they remain. The romance, as well as the “evolution” of the sibling relationship (the latter being the biggest initial draw for me), I also found nonsensical, and definitely not of the slow-burn variety, in that the attraction between Miles and Tristan is immediate but it, too, remains undeveloped (I guess they drink a lot of tea together? Which normally would be exactly my kind of thing, and yet; there's a lot of domesticity in this book that did not have the quiet impact it should have). And what happened to Robin? I have the feeling she was supposed to have a much bigger role, and I wanted to know and spend so much more time with her, but she pretty much disappeared into thin air.

What ultimately made WITCHMARK an unpleasant reading experience, though, was the way it centers a need for freedom, agency, and consent while essentially stripping its hero (and its more vulnerable characters, in this case soldiers with PTSD) of them, even going as far as to make it conveniently necessary for Miles to be bonded to two different people (to save Miles’s life!), one of whom had previously enslaved him (and had *just* freed him), and finally framing his bonding to his love interest as romantic (Amaranthines bond for marriage). 

As for the soldiers, I understand that WITCHMARK has an alt-history setting, but considering how in some cultures mental health problems are *still* believed to be caused by demon/spirit possession, I found the choice of using this device here rather peculiar.

And Grace, Miles’s sister, who is something of a weaponized-femininity kind of female character. She is basically a “good oppressor”, someone who has literally enslaved Miles, and continues to do so!, and is presented as the lesser evil, while still being, well, someone who *literally* enslaves someone else (in one of the most gruesome scenes, she would literally rather die than free Miles). 

From what I understand, the sequel will be from Grace's POV, and I’m really not sure how that’s going to work out.
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When I first started this book I thought it was all steampunk-y cliche - just substitute "aether" for "steam" - and was prepared to not like it or enjoy it very much. Imagine my surprise when the bad thing the main character has been fearing actually comes to pass and I find myself with tears on my face and my concerned boyfriend asking me what's wrong ("Nothing, honey; just a book")! The characters in Witchmark snuck in under my defenses when I wasn't looking and grabbed ahold of my heartstrings, and I don't begrudge them for it one bit. Yes, I did get tired of the word "aether" being used every couple of pages and the novel did wrap up a bit too quickly after the climactic last battle, but overall it was a highly pleasurable read that I'll definitely be recommending to others

I received a digital ARC from the publisher via Netgalley.
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Our protagonist Sir Christopher Hensley goes by the alias Miles Singer, in order to escape his discovery and continue living a mundane life as a psychiatrist in a veteran’s hospital. His country has been at war; one which Miles has seen first-hand. He went to war to escape his destiny as Sir Christopher, but when he returned home, he couldn’t leave his past behind. When his patients start murdering their families, Miles has to quickly discover what is truly hiding within the veterans who have returned from war, and how he can cure it, quickly!

Miles is a witch. As the son of a high-ranking Minister and the brother of the woman running for Voice, Miles is assumed to dedicate his life and his powers to his family. However, Miles has better uses for his affinity of healing and his smarts as a doctor. Instead of binding himself to his sister and becoming a Secondary, Miles changes his name, escapes to the war and then starts working with the veterans who have returned with demons, just like him.

The setting in this novel was very reminiscent of Edwardian England and post-world war. It was a fun steam punk meets Oliver Twist setting, with a dash of political intrigue. Polk describes his characters and the atmosphere magically.

This book was very enjoyable, however, I believe it could have been more enjoyable if the world was further explained to the reader. From the beginning, the reader is aware that there is a war taking place and our protagonist is at the centre of it, however, we don’t know much else about what started it, who’s on each side and why its continuing. I hope that this is explained more in the sequel and can give the readers a more in-depth look at the magical world Polk fabricated.

I genuinely enjoyed this book, but because of the lack of explaining when it came to the ins and outs of the war, I was genuinely confused around the 60% mark. Things became slightly clearer and I was able to understand and thoroughly enjoy the ending of the novel, however, more insight would have made the star rating become much higher than what it is.

This is the first in the Witchmark series and the following books have yet to be announced. I will definitely be continuing on with the series when the books are released.
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Witchmark suffers from poor world building. Days of the week and months are named differently, but for no apparent reason. The central conflict is narrated mostly by the main character justifying his decisions. The magic system makes no sense. It's got potential but in my opinion, the writing needed work.
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https://lynns-books.com/2018/06/28/witchmark-witchmark-1-by-c-l-polk/
What an unusual and lovely little baggage this book is.  An Edwardian style world, set in a time of war with steampunk elements.  This book includes a murder mystery that eventually reveals a much deeper plot, there’s a romance woven in along the way and in a world where magic exists you know there are going to be more surprises.  I really enjoyed this, it was intriguing, it addresses issues of privilege and power and the plot is much more in depth than I first anticipated.

The story is told by Miles.  Miles is a doctor working in a veteran’s hospital, he specialises in treating soldiers suffering from mental illness. Miles is in hiding, the hospital he works in struggles for funding being from a poorer part of the city but this suits him as he’s trying to stay below the radar of the upper echelons.  Miles ran away from home a number of years ago in order to avoid a life of servitude and he’s managed to stay in hiding ever since.  However, his luck is running out.  As the story commences Miles treats a patient who has been poisoned.  The patient dies but not before extracting a promise from Miles to hunt for the murderer.  And so the mystery begins.

The world here is an unusual place with lots of interesting concepts but in particular the magic.  For the most part the unwashed masses seem to remain unaware of the use of magic although there are witches among them and when they’re discovered they’re usually whisked away from society and incarcerated in asylums.  However, it seems that there is a powerful cabal of mages, rich and privileged people who can wield strong magic, particularly to control the climate.  These mages remain a secret from the general populace, meeting in private.  Miles was born to such a family but having a lesser ability (healing magic) means that he would have been bonded to his sister (a powerful mage) in order to contribute to her ability and secure the family position.  Basically, witches are treated as inferior and used as little more than batteries to supplement a mage’s power or breeding machines to strengthen the noble families magical ability.

In terms of the characters we have Miles.  He makes the acquaintance of Hunter and, for different reasons, the two investigate the circumstances behind the poisoning.  Hunter is a character straight out of legend -I can’t tell you anything more without giving away spoilers though.  Miles is a likeable character and a good narrator although he seems to have such a lot going on that he makes me dizzy, in fact I think he rushes into things like a headless chicken sometimes but, still very likeable, just – take a breath Miles for goodness sake. We learn quite a lot about Miles and his past as the story unfolds and he feels well rounded.  The rest of the characters are not quite as well developed and feel a little thinner somehow.  As I mentioned I can’t really discuss Hunter but he becomes the love interest of the story, not being overly fond of romances on the whole I can say this is a subtle part of the story, very well written and it doesn’t overwhelm the plot at all – although there is an element of instalove given the timeframe involved here.  Miles sister Grace – well, she annoyed me more often than not but I do think that she eventually came good – and, again, I can’t really go into too much detail about her other than to say her intentions were well meant but she was maybe a little naive.

In terms of criticisms.  I think there was a slight feeling of being rushed along somehow, the romantic element was very quick and the plot progressed at a fairly rapid pace – which isn’t really a bad thing and not something that spoiled the read for me.  However, it did leave a few things lacking, for example why Aeland and Laneer are at war.  In fairness this is a fairly short novel and there’s only so much that you can fit in, especially with a plot of this depth – frankly I wouldn’t have been averse to the page number being increased to provide a bit more detail. but I can understand the desire to keep this a bit more punchy.  There’s a fine balance between too much information and too little and I believe that the next book will focus on Grace so perhaps more detail will be forthcoming from her perspective.  The father is something of a tyrant and Grace is very ambitious – to such an extent that it’s sometimes difficult to understand why Miles still cares for her – and yet, at the same time she hopes to use her position of power to help witches such as Miles – so swings and roundabouts really and like I mentioned, I hope to find out more about her motivations in the next book.

Regardless of a few little niggles this was a highly readable story with an almost softly spoken demeanour (by which I mean this isn’t grimdark or violently brutal).  It concludes well and I would have absolutely no hesitation in reading the next instalment.  This story hooked me virtually immediately, the pacing was really good and it tackles some big issues such as exploitation, lifestyles and consequences without resorting to a preachy tone.  It has a lovely period feel to it with the inclusion of some surprisingly modern touches and has a style that I simply enjoyed reading.

I received a copy through Netgalley, courtesy of the publisher, for which my thanks.  The above is my own opinion.
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If you’re a fan of Martha Wells’ work, you may enjoy this debut fantasy novel with a gay lead.

Miles Singer is in hiding. He ran away from his family, escaping a dehumanizing future as a walking magical battery. But if witches like him aren’t bonded to the elite weather mages, then they’ll be carted off to an asylum for sure and never heard from again.

Nobody knows about Miles magic or who his family really is. He values his freedom, and he’s careful to keep it. He’s working as a doctor in a veteran’s hospital when a patient arrives who recognizes Miles both for a witch and for his family background. He begs Miles to help find his murderer before he dies of a fatal poisoning. One person overheard all of this: the mysterious Tristan, who has his own reasons for wanting Miles to investigate the murder. And he promises that if Miles helps him, he can teach Miles how to hide his magic, even from other witches.

Witchmark is a very compelling book. I read all of it in… maybe a day? I was on a trip to Ireland at the time, and I kept getting torn between looking at the scenery and reading! I ended snatching pages whenever trees blocked out the view.

What makes Witchmark so compelling? For starters, the writing style is great. It’s smooth and flows so well. The plot is also full of the twists I love, and the murder investigation soon leads Miles towards a huge conspiracy. That plus the world building makes me think of Martha Wells’ Death of a Necromancer as a comp title, so if you like her work, you should probably read Witchmark. Oh, and side note, if you haven’t read Martha Wells, you should go read both her work and C.L. Polk’s.

I also really loved the world building. World building is a large part of what draws me to science fiction and fantasy, so excellent world building is always important for me. Witchmark certainly has that. The setting is inspired by Edwardian England, although this is a second-world fantasy. Miles’ country has just ended a colonial war with another country, and his veteran’s hospital is being swamped with men returning from the front. So many of his patients have lingering mental health problems from the war, but he’s being made to release them anyway, as the hospital doesn’t have the necessary funds to provide much treatment. Miles himself is a war veteran, and he has PTSD. I don’t feel knowledgeable enough to talk much about the portrayal, but mental health is an important topic in Witchmark.

While the world of Witchmark is inspired by Edwardian England, there’s obvious differences. For one thing, it’s not the only world within these pages! There’s a race of people who are basically fae and have their own realm. You find out pretty early on that the mysterious (and gorgeous) Tristan is one of them. Oh, Tristan’s also the love interest, if you hadn’t cottoned on.

Sexism and homophobia both also work differently in the Witchmark world. It seems a bit less sexist (but still somewhat sexist) than our own corresponding time period, and there’s references to some controversial, historical king who expanded rights for women. There’s no religious backing for discrimination against same-sex relationships, and they’re not referred to unnatural or any such. They seem to be accepted for certain age ranges, but people are expected to grow out of them and start having children.

Remember when I talked about Miles’ family and dehumanization? Power and oppression also play a large role in the story. The discrimination against witches sort of reminds me of how some stories will use magical discrimination or some such as a metaphor for other things. In this case, it feels like it has some parallels to queerness, but we get an actual canonically queer lead.

Oh, back to power and dehumanization. There’s some really messed up stuff going on with Miles’ family. His sister’s one of the esteemed weather mages who pretty much secretly run the country, and his future was supposed to be becoming bonded to her to provide her with more magical power, in a relationship where he’s magically forced to obey her every command. Yeah, no wonder he runs away. Not to mention, mages like him are basically breed by their families with no choice in the matter? Again, so messed up.

You do meet his sister. She says she wants to change the system… but can Miles really trust her? As a reader, I never really knew. She is an interesting character, and she’s also the most significant female character in the novel. I don’t really have complaints about this, but if what you’re specifically looking for in a novel is lots of female characters in lead roles, this isn’t that particular book. Again, sort of like Death of a Necromancer in that way.

The only other potential criticism I can think of is that the relationship between Miles and Tristan seemed to move pretty fast. But I’m not going to get whiny about queer characters being happy. If you’re worried: this isn’t a queer tragedy. At the end of the book, both Miles and Tristan are happy and alive.

All in all, Witchmark is one of my favorite debut novels yet in 2018. I bet it’ll end up making my best of the year list! I highly recommend it.
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This debut novel by C.L Polk introduces us to Miles Singer, a gifted surgeon lately returned home from a WWI-like war. Miles lives in Aeland, currently at war with the kingdom of Laneer. His ‘gift’ is the ability to wield magic, specifically to help with his healing work. The problem is he must keep this a secret or risk personal disgrace and the threat of being locked up in an asylum.

Polk builds a fascinating world to set her story in. Refraining from dumping huge blocks of exposition, she instead reveals the details of Miles’ world piece by intriguing piece. There are echoes of Edwardian England with its class divisions, manners, and fashion. Instead of electricity they have something called ‘aether’ which is a kind of magical element. Technology is limited, and there are some wonderful descriptions of the way people ride bicycles in the city, in groups almost like flocks of birds.

The main characters are well drawn, especially Miles and his friend Tristan. Miles makes for a sympathetic leading character who just wants to help people, especially those damaged souls returning from the war. He works as a doctor in Beauregard Veterans' Hospital which brings him into contact with the returning soldiers. As he attempts to treat them for suspected shellshock, he makes a disturbing discovery; one which could have dangerous ramifications for the whole country.

Tristan meets Miles near the beginning of the story and they quickly become friends. There is something unusual about Tristan, something that sets him apart from other people. Miles’s gift lets him see deeper into people than most and he finds himself becoming attracted to his new friend. The author develops their friendship with care, making it one of the highlights of the book.

Witchmark is a delightful story. I found it very readable and after a gentle start it became increasingly exciting as one plot twist quickly followed another. It has elements of historical fantasy, murder-mystery, political conspiracy, and romance. The world-building is very impressive and has left me wanting to return to Aeland for more adventures. I haven’t heard about a sequel, but I would look forward to it if Polk decided to write one.

(I received a digital review copy from Tor Publishing via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.)
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I loved everything about this fantasy novel! It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.

The story takes place in a fantasy land named Aeland that is modeled vaguely on post-World War I England. Miles is a former soldier and psychologist treating patients with combat fatigue at a hospital for men returning from the war. He also possesses magic, which could lead either to him being condemned as a witch or enslaved by more powerful mages who would use him as the equivalent of a magical battery to power their spells.

When a dying man who claims he has been poisoned outs Miles as a magic user to a handsome stranger named Tristan, Miles is recruited by Tristan to help him figure out who murdered the man, and why. The investigations of the two men uncover a perilous threat from outside Aeland as well as a horrifying rot at the very heart of the country Miles loves.

The worldbuilding here is terrific. Yes, it’s roughly based on England following the Great War, but the author adds enough differences to make her world unique. For example, technology is powered by a mysterious substance called aether rather than electricity. The magical aspect of the story is fascinating, in that some of the great families of Aeland are secretly mages who protect the Queen and the nation while concealing their power from the general population, who have been taught to fear witches. The fact that those mages essentially enslave and manipulate the less powerful among their families makes the situation even more complex and interesting.

Miles is everything you could want in a hero—honorable, brave, and willing to sacrifice himself to save others. Tristan is a good partner for him, plus he’s got his own magical secrets that add an interesting element to his character. (Can’t say more—spoilers!) They are perfect for each other, and the romance that develops between them is very sweet indeed.

The ending makes it clear that there’s more to come for Miles and Tristan and their adventures in Aeland, and I for one can’t wait to find out what’s in store for them. I certainly don’t want to wait a year for the next book!

A copy of this novel was provided through NetGalley for review; all opinions expressed are my own. And then I bought my own copy, because I had to add it to my collection.
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I have to admit that the stunning cover of this book was what first caught my eye. Then, I read the blurb and my weakness for a world that is like our, but with magic won me over. Just imagine a world that is a reminiscent of Edwardian England, where a war has been going on, between Aeland and Laneer. Miles Singer is a doctor, but he is also born with powers that have destined him to be a slave to his family. A fate he didn't want, so he ran away, to use his skills for healing. He fought in the war, was captured and reported dead. With a new identity is he now working in a veteran hospital trying to figure out why men that are returning is coming back having the same delusion. That someone inside them trying to take over and kill everyone. And, then a man arrives at the hospital, dying, knowing Miles true name and ask for his help...

You know what I wanted more when I read this book, more knowledge about Aeland and Laneer. It did feel like you only got tidbits of information and I wanted to know more, More history about the countries, etc. I felt a bit lost now and then, but I liked the story. I liked the M/M love story that blossomed between Miles and a certain gentleman that shows up with secrets of his own. I liked the writing, the story had great flow. The last part of the book, when the pace stepped up as Miles started to untangle the truth about what is going on is truly great. I hope to read more books set in this world.
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I love a book that's a bit different to a lot of whats out there and whilst its starting to become a bit of a trend to have a crime novel in a fantasy setting, this title from CL  brings cracking world building to the fore alongside characters that are fully rounded whom you'd love to spend time with, so much so that putting the book down will be a real hardship.


Add to this great prose, some top notch twists alongside some political machinations to help muddy the waters alongside the characters trying to fight for their own beliefs and desires which colours the story and all round you have a cracking novel that leaves you desiring more.  A cracking example of a story done well and with the building that has gone into the piece, plenty of scope for future outings.  A real joy to read.

(Review goes live on 26th June)
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This is the same review as I have posted on Goodreads, but without the spoilers!

Would you be surprised if I said I read this book in one go? No, probably not. Damn son, this was a good read. 

I think one of the good things about Witchmark is that you are left to wonder along with Miles. You might have suspicions, but you won’t know for sure what’s true until it’s confirmed. 

Relationships are a big part of this book. Miles’ relationship with his sister, his father, with Tristan, and Robin, and his patients. They make the characters compelling. Or well, most of them anyway. 

The characters were truly amazing on itself too. Let’s break it down a little: 
-	Miles is a healer in more ways than just being a doctor and he loves his patients so goddamn much. He’s dedicated to his job and honestly? I aspire to be like that. 
-	Tristan is the ever so handsome love interest.  He has his own reasons for investigating Nick’s death and I liked that he had an ulterior motive without exactly having an ulterior motive. I think you know what I mean.
-	Grace is hard to describe. I don’t have any particular love for her, but that happens with 99% of all the characters I encounter, so that doesn’t say much. I get that she’s a strong female character, but it didn’t necessarily make her likable to me. 
-	Daddy Hensley is… well… not a nice man. 
-	All the different female characters! Bless them. Especially Robin. Bless her some more. 

I do like to say Witchmark really reminded me of The Last Sun. Maybe because both work magic of some kind and both protagonists are gay men trying to solve a murder with a potential love interest. HMMMM. Not that I’m complaining though, I’d totally love to read more of those stories. 

One thing that did kind of bothered me is the time span of this book.  Another thing is that the writing sometimes sounded a bit repetitive? At times the book would give an (almost exactly the same) description of things it had done just pages before (or longer, I can’t really tell anymore). I’m not sure if I’m reading too much into that though. 

Still, this was definitely worth spending my whole day on! I probably want to read the sequel, even though I heard it’s centered around Grace. I would see it as an opportunity to hopefully meet with Miles and Tristan again.
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Witchmark is a fantasy novel about Miles, a young man who has run away from his wealthy family to avoid his expected role as Secondary – a magical slave to his sister, who will inherit their father’s position as Voice upon his death. To escape the magical binding that happens to Secondaries, Miles runs away to join the army, and is sucked into a horrific war with the Laneer that leaves soldiers mentally scarred with battle fatigue, coming home to slaughter their own families. Home from war, Miles dedicates his career to work as a psychologist at the veteran’s hospital, trying to find a cause for his patients’ illness before more lives are lost.

There were so many wonderful things about Witchmark, but most come down to the stellar world building done by the author. The novel is set in a fictional world that feels similar to post-WWI England, but there is a whole culture developed in Witchmark with bike riding. There is language for the movements of the bike swarms as they move throughout the city, and complicated cultural standards for behavior inside one of these bicycle “drifts” – how to move in and out, how to switch from one side to the other, how to turn, etc. The magic in the world was equally detailed – there are different types of magic that different characters have, and certain expectations based on indivual wealth. Among the wealthy, the mages that can bend the weather are “Storm-Singers”, and the mages that can’t are only referred to as “Secondaries” – and while the author makes it clear that there is little difference between these two, the character still does not realize this until it is pointed out to him by another character. The author just did so much with language and details while still making the world feel realistic and understandable, and that really contributed to the realism of Witchmark.

It’s pretty rare for me to talk about pacing unless there is something wrong with it, but the pacing on Witchmark felt so perfect for this book. The author did a fantastic job of keeping things moving quickly without rushing through the character-building moments. I am not a person with a whole lot of time to sit down and read (most of my reading is done via audiobooks, or squeezing reading into 15-20 minute spurts throughout my day) but I devoured this novel in about 3 days because I couldn’t wait to find out what happened. That does say a lot for the world building and the plot, but moreso for the pacing, because when a book slows too much I am less likely to jump in as soon as I find the time.

The characters in Witchmark were quite well done as well. Much of the novel depends on the reader being suspicious of most of the characters, so that did make it hard to relate to some of the secondary characters, but Miles and Tristan were complex characters with developed back stories who interacted with each other in realistic ways. Even Grace, who the author holds at arm’s length for most of the novel, still was sympathetic and well-developed, and if nothing else is a strong female character with a goal and a mind of her own.

In all, I will give Witchmark a 9 out of 10. There is so much to love – the setting, the plot, the characters – with a good fast pacing that held my attention until the very end. Fantasy readers will love this book, and readers who are interested in trying fantasy should like it too.
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