Witchmark

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 30 Jun 2018

Member Reviews

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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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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