Martha Wells has been a lowkey legend for more than a decade now, and she just keeps pumping out the hits. Witch King is another solid entry to her canon, a standalone with sequel potential that quietly incorporates current discourse into her classic high fantasy style.
This book reminded me of reading 90’s fantasy in the best way, the huge sweeping plots and big action sequences, full of desperate badassery. Wells took everything worth taking from those Tolkien-likes, including—I was surprised to find—the clear delineation of good and evil. People have been doing a lot with nuance and moral conundrums lately, which is great for the genre as a whole, but sometimes you just want to sink into a straightforward dualistic universe and root for the good guys.
This isn’t to say that there’s no complexity in Witch King. There are plenty of unobtrusive but important challenges to anything resembling a gender binary (Kai himself uses male pronouns but has different bodies), and there’s no mistaking anti-colonialist themes. On a character level, we also get some interesting conundrums, the most obvious of which being that Kai eats people. That’s mostly literal, though not to the point of mastication: he drains them of life and uses that life-force for his own purposes. Fortunately, Kai has a perfectly healthy sense of right and wrong, and only uses his powers when there’s need.
There’s a lot of need, to be fair. And that’s great for readers, because Kai’s powers are extremely cool, and set within systems that are equally interesting. There are four different magic systems: demonic power, which is intrinsic and focused mostly on the body; Witch powers, which are about elemental or spirit manipulation; Immortal Blessed powers, which draw on a single, religiously-inflected source of power; and expositor intentions, which rely on sketched spells to create specific and often more complex effects. Kai, over the course of his long life, has plenty of experience with all these systems and with their usual practitioners, so most of the battles are fought at a cataclysmically (and awesomely) high level.
Fans of Murderbot will find a lot to like in Kai, who’s also reluctant to exercise his authority (or socialize at all), and is deeply loyal to the few people who look past his feared status as a demon to see that he has basically no desire to use his terrifying powers. He was content with his quiet life, until the Hierarchs destroyed it all.
The Hierarchs, the driving authority behind a relentless invading force, are part of the chapters that go into Kai’s past. In the present, Kai is living in the aftermath, trying to figure out who has betrayed him and why. He’s a little bit tortured about his past, but mostly he’s pissed. Humans! Why are they so bad at staying alive?
Wells must have a fairly dim view of humanity, and I can’t say I blame her. Still, there’s enough hope and humor in her outlook to make this a fun read, not a grimdark one. Love, loyalty, and kindness shine brightly through all the terrors of war and captivity, not just from Kai but from the great cast of secondary characters. Ziede, his Witch companion, along with an ever-expanding group of allies and friends, give Witch King immense depth and extremely fun sub-plots to boot.
There’s a strong push right now to capitalize on the enduring success of Murderbot to re-release Martha Wells’ other fiction, and I’m so happy that a new generation of fans will get to experience her works for the first time. Witch King is a great introduction to the fantasy side of her work, too, and I’m excited to see how Wells’ work will continue to evolve.