Witchmark: C.L. Polk

★★★½

The Kingston Cycle: Book I

Miles Singer is a psychiatrist at Beauregard Veterans’ Hospital, treating men who’ve come back from the front line shattered by their experiences in war. A former soldier himself, Miles knows only too well what they’re going through and he does all he can to help them; but he must be careful not to be too clever with his healing. For Miles is in hiding: a magically-gifted member of one of Aeland’s greatest families, who has escaped his family and his destiny to find his vocation elsewhere. Better that he should help these men, than spend his life as a moderately-talented Secondary, bound as a source to his more talented Storm-Singer sister Grace. Unfortunately, his family don’t agree. And, when a dying man turns up at his hospital one day, with Miles’s real name on his lips, claiming to have been poisoned, Miles will find that he can no longer keep at a distance from his powerful clan. But at what cost? For he isn’t the only one with secrets.

C.L. Polk’s world is a pleasantly half-familiar mixture of magic, gaslight, bicycle chases and rudimentary electricity or ‘aether’. At times her city of Kingston, the capital of Aeland, feels rather like London; at others like New York; but one thing’s for sure: it has a rigid class structure. At the top are the old nobles, the Hundred Families, whose social status is backed up by their magical clout: their presence as Storm-Singers among the royal mages. They are the only class permitted to have magical power. Those of more modest birth who manifest talent are demonised as witches, prone to insanity, and are swiftly bundled off into distant asylums. Magical power can only be allowed when it serves the state – and it’s vital, because it’s only through the Storm-Singers’ binding of the weather that Aeland continues to enjoy its temperate climate and fine harvests. If the circle breaks, the whole country will suffer; and now, as ambitious mages jostle for the top spot, the magical hierarchy is strained as never before. It’s in this context that, one day, Miles finds himself facing one of the people he hoped he’d never see again: Grace.

Running into his family again is just what Miles doesn’t need. They’ve assumed he was killed in the war and that’s just the way he likes it. And Grace turns up at an awkward moment. Miles is becoming increasingly alarmed by the mystery of the man who died on his watch, because this fellow – Nick Elliot – seems not only to have had magical power of his own, but to have made dangerous enemies among Aeland’s elite. Why? What did Nick know? Why was he a danger to these powerful families? And why did he use his last breaths to find Miles? What did he want Miles to know?

To make matters worse, Miles doesn’t really have time for another mystery. He’s already stretched, trying to save his patients and hoping to figure out how to cure the dark, blood-stained virus that he can see spreading through their bodies and dragging them further down into despondency and murderous rage. War fatigue is a thing, Miles knows. These men are damaged, haunted by the war and terrified of what their memories might make them do. But how can he cure them? Is it an illness of the mind – or of the body? Oh, and then there’s Tristan Hunter, the good Samaritan who turns up with the dying Nick Elliot and proves inconveniently fascinating. And inconveniently interested, too. And, the more time Miles spends with the enigmatic Mr Hunter, the more he gets an uncomfortable feeling that he isn’t the only one hiding who he truly is.

This is a pacy story and I plunged through it in a couple of sittings, as interested in Polk’s world as in her story. Her world-building is wonderfully rich and complex, even if things aren’t always explained – for example, it isn’t quite clear whether the Solace is in this world or another; likewise, the realm of the Amaranthines. And their kingdom the same as the Solace? I’m still a bit confused, but I’m pretty sure that Witchmark spells a forthcoming series, so I’m sure these questions will be illuminated further down the line. In fact, that was my main issue with the novel: that there were all these interesting ideas that I wanted to know more about – I wanted to get a firmer grip of the history, the social structure, the reasons for the war. I wanted to understand more about the world of Storm-Singers and Secondaries, which is of course so vital to Miles’s backstory. And I also felt the end was a bit hurried compared to the more measured development earlier in the novel. Suddenly we’re overloaded with revelations, not to mention unforeseen travel and a whole host of new characters and then we finish on what is, if not exactly a cliffhanger, then a definite invitation to wait eagerly for the next instalment.

But this is a fresh and tantalising kind of world – something almost familiar on the one hand, with elements of post-First-World-War London (think Pat Barker’s Ghost Road trilogy), but spiced with a more magical, otherworldly quality which reminded me of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. There’s a lot of mileage in Polk’s world and, even if this book sometimes feels more like a setting-up than a standalone story, I’m keen to see where she takes it next and what further adventures the world of Aeland has to offer.

Plus, isn’t that the most beautiful cover?

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