This duology (hopefully a trilogy or series!!) swept me out of the room and into the Edwardian-inspired fantasy world of Aeland, filled with a secret society of mages, persecuted witches, and a long-standing world war with Laneer. And queer rep in spades!
Witchmark by CL Polk
Miles Singer has a secret.
The mild-mannered psychologist at a veteran’s hospital is a witch, and while that would mark him for instant sentencing to an asylum, that’s not the worst of it. He’s actually the son of the most powerful man in Aeland, second only to the Queen and the Voice of the secret society of mages who rule the nation and protect it from devastating storms.
Years ago, Miles ran away from home, joined the army and endured war, imprisonment and torture at the hands of his enemies, and is living in semi-seclusion as a psychologist, trying to cure his patients, who all suffer from a vicious Killer inside them that yearns to dismember, hunt and destroy.
Then a mysterious man delivers a dying witch to Miles’ hospital, and the witch bestows a final gift to Miles—his mage and his soul. And the mystery man reveals that not only does he knows Miles’ secret, but he wants him to help solve the mystery of where Aeland’s souls are going.
The mystery deepens, as someone else is after the knowledge Miles holds and is determined to stop him in any way, shape or form—and with the arrival of Miles’ sister, Grace, Miles’ once-simple life is definitely no more.
Ugh, I loved this book so much.
Miles is a soft man, but beneath his cinnamon-roll exterior in a core of diamond—brilliant, unbreakable and pure.
He’s seen war, he knows (some) of the horror that exists in his country, and he is determined to do what is right, always.
And Tristan is awesome too, as the love interest/totally an elf investigator (spoiler: there are ELVES in this book!). The romance is so wonderful and the representation is fantastic. Not just queer rep, but people of color, people with disabilities, and much more.
Anywho, in addition to an absolutely thrilling bicycle chase (think Fast and the Furious, but with bicycles and…actual great action scenes), a queer romance, Edwardian social mores/settings (my kink!) and a fantastic plot with secret magical societies, this covers some very heavy topics. Like slavery, and the slavery of the poor versus the slavery of the rich, war and the effects of war (and the lengths that a people will go to win a war or go to war), and the weight of the mighty. This is a very much eat your rich type of book, and I loved it.
Definitely a must-read for fantasy lovers, with lots of layers to ponder and think about.
Stormong by CL Polk
Taking place literally two weeks after the absolutely stunning conclusion of Witchmark, Stormsong pops into the head of Grace, Miles’ really annoying and completely indoctrinated into the system of systematic magical prejudice—and, coincidentally, the Voice interim.
Grace was by far my least favorite character in Witchmark, mostly because she accurately ticked off every single Rich, Passingly Progressive White Woman Trope that ever walked the planet, and how despite having her nose rubbed into her prejudices she never really…got it. Not even at the end, when she helped Miles destroy everything. It was more save my brother than oh shit this is really bad this needs to be dismantled pronto.
So stepping into her POV wasn’t exactly something I wanted to do. But, I loved, loved, loved Witchmark, so into this book I went.
This isn’t a bad book—I gave it four stars for a reason that wasn’t purely sentimental—but it wasn’t as polished as Witchmark.
Grace is operating at the highest levels of society, and is forced to navigate both her actions in the literal undoing of the slavery that kept her country together (mild spoiler: Aeland’s prosperity is built upon the enslavement of witches) and keeping her people safe from an onslaught of politics and blizzards.
So the basic premise is…How do you solve an impossible problem when you are deeply complicit in its existence?
Grace’s eyes are (slowly) opened to the real horrors of the lower classes and the frustrations of her peers, as she has been isolated and inculcated into Aeland’s system for her entire life.
She is the perfect product of the system of prejudice and class structure.
And she’s finally realized that, wow, that might not be a good thing.
So anywho, Grace goes through the entire book trying to do what is right while lacking the tools to listen, act and correct. In addition to dismantling the system that has kept Aeland running for centuries, she also has to dismantle the hellscape of her own preconceptions.
Luckily, journalist and former-socialite Ava Jessup is there to open her eyes, and the two have a bit of chemistry throughout.
Plus there’s a plot of the Amaranthines (the elf-people Tristan belongs to) coming into Aeland to pass judgement upon Aeland’s many transgressions (of which invading a peaceful country for its resources and enslaving its own people are just the tip of the iceburg), to a plot to overthrow the obstinate queen in place of her impetuous son, to a mutiny among the outer rings of mages who are now in charge because their mommies and daddies are locked up to…everything else.
Anywho, while I related to Grace a lot (she was isolated from her peers by her father, who groomed her to take over his position but neglected to give her the opportunity to actually…cultivate working relationships with her age mates), I was frustrated by her total naivety.
This is a woman who was groomed from birth to assume the highest ranks of political and magical power, and while she’s very good at the technical details, she flounders at all social aspects and fails to really see what is happening outside her ivory tower. Yes, there’s a lot of growth and breaking down of mental barriers, but it was still hard to read, mainly because I wanted it to go faster.
And because it takes a lot of learning to realize that true healing takes time, it takes attentive consideration, and deep-rooted issues cannot be changed by throwing money at it (*side-eyeing Grace of Witchmark*). And within that learning and dismantling of ingrained prejudice is a lot of backsliding, because when the entire system around you stymies your growth, it’s hard to grow.
And also because I did not want the book to end like it did.
In a Sopranos-like twist, it ends mid-scene, with so much that needs to be resolved and wrapped up. It needed another solid 100 pages to finish fully, and instead it ended with the romance at the high point, where the romance had been taking a quiet seat at the back of the bus for most of the book (okay, there were quite a few times where Grace threw herself into precarious positions to protect Ava by using her political and societal wealth, but still).
So Stormsong is a solid 4.5 stars, docked .5 for its ending.
I need more!
I received an ARC of Stormsong from NetGalley for an honest review.
Stormsong released from Tor.com 11 February 2020.