Cover Image: Witchmark

Witchmark

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Wow! I really loved this. An Edwardian England inspired fantasy, it was different than anythjng I've read in ages! Miles was a great character! Bring on the next one!
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Once I got used to the setting (Edwardian mixed with post World War I) and that rules of witches (mages if you're of the upper class) are discriminatory, this was a hard book to put down. Miles just wants a normal life taking care of soldiers. But he's scared that if he uses too much magic, he'll either end up in the asylum or into forced servitude to his sister. With this tension all around him, he trying to find out who killed a patient. And try not to fall in love with a handsome newcomer.
Warning: This book desperately needs a second book.
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Early Industrial Fantasy is my jam, doubly so when the characters are this good. Polk hooked me swiftly with the first-person narrator, a doctor, dealing with realistic issues, then kept me reading with the steady increase in difficulties he had to face and the multiple unexpected twists. I loved how what at first seemed like a straightforward medical/magical mystery opened up in several directions,  deepening my knowledge of the protagonist and his fascinating world. I would very happily read more books in this series; I want to know what happened with the situation at the end! If you like Lois McMaster Bujold's characterization, you will probably like this book. It also reminded me a bit of Zen Cho's SORCERER TO THE CROWN with the royal wizards and their shenanigans.

I received an advance copy from NetGalley.
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Witchmark is so refreshingly different from everything else I’ve read lately. It pulls elements from all sorts of familiar story types in fantasy and yet it feels like something completely new. Fans of urban fantasy might like the murder mystery plot and all the investigating that goes along with it. There’s also a strong romantic side-plot which I adored. Fans of historical fantasy might like the feel of the world as it’s an analog of post-WWI England, while fans of the fae may enjoy this fresh take on the immortals here. I could go on, there are so many things to love about this book.

The descriptions and the prose were great and very much inserted me into the setting of the book. I felt like I walking the hospital with Miles, or hanging out in his cramped little closet of an office. There was a bit of a vague feeling to the prose too, especially when Miles was using his magic to help his patients. The thoughts conveyed could sometimes be dreamlike in quality, that they weren’t fully fleshed out and something seemed missing, but in a good way. I think this worked great for setting the atmosphere just a bit off kilter. This is one of my favorite things writers do and not everyone pulls it off so well as it is done here.

I loved the world-building in Witchmark. It’s not our world but it’s a mirror so it feels familiar enough that one can fill in the blanks. And yet it’s different enough that you wanted to know more about it. The magic in the world and how it’s utilized is one the most thought-provoking aspects of the book. I found it interesting how this system existed, or how it was even allowed to exist as it did where one kind of magical affinity took precedence over every other kind of power to the point where those with ‘secondary’ abilities are being utilized as human batteries for a class of elite magic users. There is some explanation behind this, but I feel like I still want more answers on how this happened and why it was able to persist for so long. Then again, horrible things happen all of the time and are able to persist for centuries in real life so it does make sense in that context.

The pacing is a bit slower at times. There were  a lot of meetings with various people and less action, but that’s to be expected with investigation plots. That being said, while I don’t need action all of the time, some of the interactions between characters (like some of the stuff at the hospital) dragged on just a bit for me. Really, a very minor complaint. The only other thing that bugged me a bit was Miles’ relationship with his sister and father, how he so willingly went along to help even though he’d been hiding for so long. And even though Grace comes around in the end, some of the stuff she does to him feels irredeemable to me. His father is definitely a mustache twirly villain, but that’s ok! I don’t mind those so much when they’re a good balance for the rest of the story.

I think most of the characters were really well done. This isn’t the type of story, I think, where you get as close to the characters as you may want. They’re always just a bit at a distance. Usually I’m all about the characters and if they feel at a distance I’m not as much into the story, but for the most part that wasn’t an issue here because it worked with the overall atmosphere of the book. Miles was great and felt very realistic (this is also probably why he irked me when he made a stupid decision), but Tristan completely stole the show for me. I pretty much love everything about him. Like, is there a Team Tristan I can sign up for? Anyway, I loved the relationships between the characters too. Grace and Miles had a curious sibling relationship that had layers of complexity built into it. I’m still not quite sure how to feel about some of it. But Tristan and Miles…woooh. I could read about them quietly seducing each other with nothing more than glances and loosening of neckties all day.

Overall, I really loved Witchmark. I think all the elements brought together here worked well to create something new and refreshing. The murder mystery plot had a few surprises and I absolutely adored the romantic aspect. 4.5/5 stars.
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I must say that when I saw the cover and when I saw that this novel was staging witches, I did not look for more and I plunged into it.

The world in which Miles lives is not easy, especially when someone has powers. He has been running away from his family for a long time because he is hungry for freedom and he hopes to be able to exercise quietly as a doctor. However, his life will change radically when he crosses Hunter’s road when one of his patients is poisoned. Teaming up together, they will have to understand what happened and perhaps even expose much bigger conspiracies than they thought. This research will bring Miles back to the fore and he will finally have to face his family and his destiny, but above all to make choices!

I had a little trouble getting into the novel at the beginning of the story, but finally, after a few chapters, I was easily carried away. The universe and characters are very interesting and although I still have several questions about the management of this society, I had a great time! I am not necessarily a very large reader of M / M novels, not even at all, even if I read some. However, I must say that here I liked this aspect and I found that it was touching, especially with such an end.

Full of surprises during the chapters and although I was surprised by Miles’s understanding of the situation, I sometimes really wanted to put Grace (his sister) back in her place.

It was a very interesting first volume and I am curious to see what the following book will propose!
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Witchmark is the first installment to a fantasy, clearly inspired by Edwardian England. While this book certainly has its flaws, I ended up falling for it very hard. 

My falling hard for this book translated to reading it in one sitting. Luckily my toddler slept on and on and on during his nap but I’m not sure if I could have taken having to put this down during those last 100 pages. At that point there was just no stopping. 

What I really liked about this book was the inclusion of the veterans and the clients that Miles had as a doctor at a veteran’s hospital. Not often do we really get to see what happens to veterans after a war. It was great to see this in a fantasy book. Battle fatigue, PTSD, delusions, they weren’t hidden away. These are realistic things, also for a fantasy world. I also think the struggles that were in the background at the hospital, funding being cut and being forced to send patients home to clear up beds, was very realistic. 

Plot wise and world building wise is where it gets a bit shaky. I was very interested in seeing where the death of the poisoned patient was going to take them and how our Mr. Hunter was going to fit into everything, especially the fantasy aspect of it. This all was very well done and I was quite surprised at the end. However along the way there were tiny things that felt shaky. 

Especially when it came to world building. It took me a long time to feel like I had any kind of grasp on what kind of magic system they had. It was in the latter half of the book and it just felt a bit too late. I could have used that information earlier on. Also there was a species introduced in the book, an apparent legend. I have no idea how they differ from the ones with magic or what he even can do. And at the end I still didn’t know except that he was gorgeous. This is something that really needs to be expanded on in the next book. 

Miles, our main character, I took a liking to rather quickly. There is just something so endearing about him as a person, the way he cares for his patients or the way that our Mr. Hunter shakes him. Mr. Hunter himself could have used a bit more deepening to be honest, considering the romantic relationship with Miles. Even so I thought their relationship was the cutest thing. 

Miles’ family are certainly a piece of work. I know a lot of reviews speak of a brother-sister relationship but this one is quite troubled throughout the book and for that reason I just can’t like his sister. So don’t have too high expectations of that relationship. 

So this is certainly not a book without flaws. But it has its endearing and original elements that drew me in from the beginning.
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This book was just a perfect read for me! I loved it so much that I've already pre-ordered the paper book (no hard cover version, a shame, but such a magnificent cover!) and will certainly reread it before reading the next one.

The atmosphere was great, with a definitive European world war vibe in an imaginary fantasy world. A little bit like steampunk, but... without the steampunk. There is definitely a delicious vintage shade in the writing, which reminded me of A.J.Cronin's books (particularly of "Shannon's way", where the main character is also a doctor). If I had to chose an only word to describe "Witchmark", it'd be elegant. The writing is elegant, the characters' interactions are credible and touching, the story itself is clever and delicately woven. The modern themes (egality between men and women - jobs wise, different skins' colourings, homo or bisexual relationships) are carefully blended in the story, with discrete explanations, for a beautiful unaffected result.

And other way to describe the book is romantic. Not romantic in a romance kind of way, even if there is a romance in the book, but the poignant romantic way of a broken destiny - without the usual narrative abuses, with finesse.

The general idea about how magic exist and is known in the world is at once simple and clever. It's realities have given the opportunity of a dramatic situation for our hero, Miles, skilfully used to tell us a fascinating story. The facts are not brutally throwed in our way, but on the contrary brought slowly in the story, for a riveting read. For all its finesse, this book isn't a challenge to read, it was quite a page-turner for me!

The main character, who tells the story, is one of the book's strong points. I loved how the author shows that sensibility and empathy can be associated with strength of character, and how these very traits can simultaneously be an advantage for a healer and a suffering. 

Miles' voice is very good. It's not so easy to make loveable a character who speaks in the first person in the narrative, but C.L.Polks manages it beautifully. I loved his melancholic strength, his decency, his warm-hearted nature.

If the bases of the story were interesting, its unravelling was also quite good, with a surprising revelation in the end. The romance was also pleasant, sweet and delicate, just like the narrator. If you need some steamy sexe action in your romances, you'll be disappointed! If you prefer, as I do, subtlety, you'll probably like it as I did. And, if you don't care for romance at all, you shouldn't be bothered by it, as it's rather discreet in the whole book. 

To conclude a very good surprise, I'm looking forward reading the sequel, which isn't so frequentfor me nowadays!
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Miles is a psychiatrist who is treating war veterans. His powers, kept hidden in a society where witches are imprisoned in asylums, make him notice that something isn’t right with some of his patients, beyond the usual war fatigue. When a dying man comes to him, claiming to have uncovered a state secret about the war, Miles starts investigating the suspicious death and the victim’s accusations. He is assisted by Tristan, a mysterious and charming being who came to Aeland for his own purposes. In the meantime, the country is shaken by gruesome domestic murders perpetrated by veterans. Miles is caught between trying to uncover the truth and doing his best to avoid his powerful family, for whom he is presumed dead in battle.

Witchmark was, all things considered, a good read. A few aspects worked for me, a few others didn’t quite, but I would still consider it a strong debut.

Let’s start with what did work — first, the setting. It is familiar and utterly new at the same time, something I really enjoy in fantasy. Aeland is inspired by Edwardian England, down to the early-20th-century inventions that are powered by aether as an alternative to electricity. Polk also managed to give her setting a presence; I could hear the bicycle bells, I could smell the apple scent permeating the pages. I liked the experience of being in the story, its backdrop felt both comfortable and fresh at once.

I also appreciated how exciting and fast-paced the plot is. The murder mystery aspect makes the book extremely readable, and since there’s a lot going on, we’re kept on our toes until the climatic end. The story also provides us with an interesting take on PTSD and mental health, which is another strong point in its favour.

As to what worked less for me…I must admit that I wanted to like Miles more than I did. On paper, he’s my type of protagonist: caring, empathetic, quietly competent. I did enjoy the fact that Polk put a twist on the “the warrior homecoming” trope, by making him a doctor that continues to wage a war, this time against his patients’ mysterious illness. However, something just didn’t click, and I was left mostly irritated by how he let himself be manipulated. First-person point of view can also be limiting. I wanted to know more about Tristan — I think Polk is planning for Witchmark to be a duology and I wouldn’t be surprised if the sequel is from his point of view. It would be great, because the few hints we have of his past are really intriguing. Plus, the slow-burning romance between him and Miles is sweet and promises to be developed even more in a follow-up story, and I would love to have his perspective on it.

The magic system is interesting, but I was a bit conflicted about it. Magic in Aeland is officially forbidden, those who are suspected of having powers are submitted to a gruelling test and locked up if they fail it. However, an elite who answers to the Crown is allowed to practice magic, in order to tamper with the country’s otherwise unliveable weather. They rely on their Secondaries, less powerful mages who can do “tricks” but are used (and misused, and often abused) as a wellspring of power. Miles joined the war effort as a physician and faked his own death to escape being his sister’s bound Secondary. There is more to the magic than that, and we get additional information as the plot moves forward.

My issue was that I was a bit skeptical about the short-sightedness of making the Secondaries mere sources of power when a few of them have important talents. In a country at war, one would think that the ability to heal, for example, would be sought after. It is understandable that the elite would want to preserve the status quo, but the whole thing seems so unpractical to me. Fortunately, attempting to shake up this established order is one of the key plot points.

I think the positives outweighed the less-positives for me on this one. Polk did a lot of things differently, and the book has a strong distinct identity which makes it a breath of fresh air. I am looking forward to reading the sequel — the ending was open enough to make me want more, even if the story is relatively self-contained.
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It's rare that I ever finish a book in a day, or that a story will cause me to drop everything and just do nothing but keep reading, but Witchmark did that for me. I loved this book so much. It is captivating and romantic - it's like if Downton Abbey had magic and allowed it's LGBTQ characters to have an actual romance. Once you start reading Witchmark, there's really no stopping. It's my new obsession. I need a sequel to this like, yesterday. I need at least four books in this series right fricking now. Love it love it love it love it love it love it. More please. My only regret reading the ARC is that it will make the wait for a sequel so much longer. 

I need more. Miles/Tristan forever, damn it!
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Immensely charming story. I really enjoyed the world of not quite England, and it's post war setting and mild steampunk flavor. The system of magic is fascinating and I enjoy how the author illustrates the disparity of class systems both within the magic community and without. The protagonist's romantic interest is also handled very well, managing to be both incredibly intimate and also classy and not too tortured. High marks. Bring us more please!
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