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Witchmark by C. L. Polk

Witchmark by C. L. Polk
4.5
Book Name: Witchmark
Author: C. L. Polk
Publisher(s): Tor.com (US) St. Martin's Press (UK)
Formatt: Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Fantasy / Romance
Release Date: June 19, 2018

“Help me, Starred One. I am murdered.”

Witchmark, the debut novel of C. L. Polk and the first in The Kingston Cycle, quickly bicycle-raced its way to my favourite book of 2018. A murder mystery novel set in a world alike to Edwardian England post-WWI, the fast-paced tale is quick to hook and doesn’t let go. If you were to ask me one thing I had to say about Witchmark, it would be, “Read it.”

We follow the hard-working, altruistic doctor Miles Singer, currently hiding from his past in a hospital where he must conceal his magical gifts. Magic, in his world, is a curse to those who can’t protect themselves behind wealth and status. If he is found, Miles risks either being committed to an asylum for witches or forced into slavehood to his upper-class sister. But despite his desperate situation, Miles is determined to use his healing gifts for good, making him the sort of protagonist I can’t help but root for.

He knows the risks he takes in using his powers to heal his war-veteran patients (and risk magical exposure) but he does it anyway. He’s well-meaning, even if he doesn’t always make the right decisions, and cares deeply for both strangers and his complicated family. While his situation is confusing at first glance, the reasons for Miles’s reclusive personality are satisfyingly revealed throughout the novel as we watch him navigate the high-society of magic users and their politics.

For the first third-or-so of the novel, the worldbuilding in Witchmark left me a bit confused. The book is written in a way that assumes the reader already has more information than they do—effectively throwing them into the story without a paddle. While this meant we were able to start the murder mystery straightaway (within the first three pages!) it often meant I had to flip back and forth, searching for information I might have missed. I hadn’t—the information simply hadn’t been offered yet. However, after the plot got rolling, I forgave the confusion because I was just having too much fun.

I loved the world, the characters, and the way that Polk addresses social issues without beating around the bush. There is little innuendo when it comes to injustices; they are pointed out and questioned as Miles sends us deeper into his life. We are treated to an unapologetic look at class disparities, personal agency, and the work it takes to be kind. Not because you have to, but because you want to.

What kept me reading, in the beginning, was how well the book is written. Witchmark always knows what it is, meaning the tone is always right for the scene. The dialogue doesn’t feel melodramatic, nor do the small jokes feel forced through teeth. The prose is sharp and cut to the bones, so I don’t need to read pages upon pages of description that do nothing to move the plot or weave the world. Nor was I subjected to lines and lines of stage direction when characters moved or spoke. Even though I think the world needed far more explanation in the first third, this at least does help it avoid bogging down the plot too much with exposition. I read more to find out what was going on, and Polk’s fantastic writing skill lined the way in red carpet.

But as much as I loved the world, and however many times I want to praise Polk on her writing, the true strength of Witchmark lies in its romance. Witchmark does not make you guess who the romantic interest is, nor does it shy away from Miles’s feelings for him when they first meet. Right from the beginning, their relationship is not a question of, “Will they, won’t they?” but a “When will they?” It’s predictable, and I thought that was just what it should be.

What prevents Witchmark from falling into the trap of cliché or sickly-sweetness is the sheer earnestness of the relationship between Miles and Tristan. There are all the familiar tropes, the familiar cute moments, the expected witty banter. But it never feels too much, because it’s just written well—and that’s all there is to it. The romance is supportive, pleasant, and above all, a bright spot between scenes of murder mystery and family drama.

We are made to see Tristan as Miles surely sees him—as a place of comfort and support. As I watched Miles deal with soldiers with PTSD, discuss his potential slavehood to his sister, explore the glaring class-privilege in his world, and confront the tolls of war on the vulnerable, I was glad to have Tristan there at Miles’s side. In the paranormal romance genre, especially in works dealing with gay men, there are enough relationships that feed off abuse or disparate power dynamics. It was a great relief that I never believed Tristan would follow those darker conventions, because Polk ensures that we know he never would. Instead, we have a kinder sort of romance. It’s the no-surprises, happy partnership I wanted it to be, and that the genre sorely needs more of.

All-in-all, Witchmark is just fun. I wouldn’t say it’s a “changed my life,” or a particularly earth-shattering novel, but it’s one that I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s perfect for what it is—a magical, romantic romp through an enchanting world. It’s exactly the kind of book to read when you need something good, something that imagines a kinder hero and a gentler romance. With so much adversity in our own world, it’s a pleasure to be invited to Polk’s, and I can’t wait go back again soon with her up-coming Stormsong.

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