A new novel from Martha Wells is always interesting. A new novel in an entirely new setting is very exciting, because Wells creates such interesting worlds.
The world of Witch King is not as off-the-wall as that of the Raksura, but it does have a lot to offer the fantasy connoisseur. It is set on a continent that has recently suffered an invasion by a foreign power. The Hierarchs arrived with large armies, and with very superior (magical) technology, and swept all before them. However, thanks to a small group of heroes, and people being willing to follow them, the Hierarchs were finally defeated and sent packing.
At some point the dudebros are going to notice that all of the heroes have brown skin, whereas the Hierarchs and their soldiers are pale-skinned. When they do there will be much snowflake melting on Twitter. But Wells has the Hierarchs come from the South which will doubtless confuse a lot of the shouty ones.
First amongst our heroes is Bashasa Calis, Prince-heir of the city of Benais-arik. His primary superpower is as a politician. When he talks, people listen, and agree to follow him. Being mortal, he is long-since dead in the primary timeline.
Then there is Tahren Stargard, a member of a small but very powerful group of magical warriors called the Immortal Blessed. They chose to ally themselves with the Hierarchs, all save Tahren who is known as The Fallen as a consequence.
Next up there is Ziede Daiyahan, a Witch, known as a great teacher amongst her people, but in wartime better known for her command of air elementals. Tahren is now her wife.
And finally. Kaiistereon, Prince of the Fourth House of the Underearth, a demon, known as the Witch King, and as Kai to his friends. Kai’s real body is in the demon realm, but demons have the power to possess the bodies of mortals and thereby play a part in mortal affairs.
Our story begins thoroughly in media res. Kai wakes up in the body of a young human. Nearby are a terrified girl, a sorcerer, and the sorcerer’s minions. Also nearby is a coffin containing Kai’s previous body. A demon’s one weakness is water. It appears that someone managed to knock Kai unconscious, put his body in a coffin, and submerge that coffin in water. Luckily for Kai, an idiot sorcerer decided he could enslave the weakened demon and drained the water. Said sorcerer and his minions are quickly dispatched, but now Kai wants to know what happened to him, and why.
It turns out that Ziede is imprisoned nearby. Kai frees her, but Tahren is nowhere to be found. Another mystery, and one that Ziede is anxious to resolve. Someone must have betrayed them, and that someone presumably has Tahren as a prisoner.
For our heroes, that is enough, but we readers know nothing. The book therefore has a secondary plotline which takes place some 60 or so years before and tells of the arrival of the Hierarchs, and how they were defeated. This information is essential to understanding the political machinations that have resulted in the current predicament for our heroes.
So much for the epic fantasy angle, but the book also has more general themes. The first is the nature of magic. Ziede’s Witch magic is essentially a negotiation with spirits, but Hierarch magic is based on death. They can do all sorts of spells, but the power that makes those spells work comes from human life force. The more people they kill, the more powerful they become. Kai has learned to use this magic, and can kill his enemies with ease. But he refuses to go around with a baggage train of prisoners to sacrifice when he needs them. He has discovered that he can use his own pain to power spells.
There is also a found family aspect to the story. As noted, Ziede and Tahren are a couple in the present day, though that was not always the case. Kai, despite being a demon, is someone that they love and trust, having been through the fires of war at his side. Our heroes are from very different backgrounds and cultures, and all three are alone for different reasons, but find strength in each other.
A third theme is gender. Kai can inhabit any human body, and spends most of the backstory as a young woman. In the backstory he has not been living among mortals for long and has a lot to learn about their ways. Here he is examining a group of soldiers from a group of Bashasa’s people who have been forced to serve the Hierarchs as soldiers:
All those Kai could see were dressed as men in tied split skirts. Kai had figured out by now that Arike soldiers were traditionally women, and Arike women wore pants; had the Hierarchs killed the whole garrison and conscripted men to replace them, or made the captured soldiers change their gender? Another reason they didn’t took happy to be here.
I was on a train when I read that, so I couldn’t laugh as loudly as I wanted to.
Anyway, I very much enjoyed this book, and there is plenty in the world that hasn’t yet been explored. I am hopeful for sequels. If I had the time (which I don’t), I’d be thinking about a role-playing setting inspired by some of the ideas in the book.