Jun 022023

Wall Street Journal: Regular readers of sci-fi know Martha Wells from her Murderbot Diaries (if you don’t, go get them immediately). “Witch King” is a fantasy novel about as far from Murderbot as it’s possible to get, and the fact that the author does it so well is a testament to her range and abilities.

We start in the middle of the action, meeting the main character and his companion when they wake up after a mysterious betrayal and attack. Kai uses his supernatural powers to drain the life out of his enemies just in time to rescue Ziede, who has been locked away in a vault. But what starts off seeming to be the tale of two vampiric lovers who kill and consume anyone in their way turns into a story far more complicated and fascinating.

Kai, we soon learn, is a demon from the “underearth,” a creature whose formidable abilities are connected to the experience of pain. In the world of “Witch King” demons are decidedly non-spiritual creatures who have a complex relationship with the people of the Grasslands; they are invited into the bodies of the dead and then treated like family. Ziede is a witch, which here is more a race than a profession. She is close friends with Kai but married to a missing woman called Tahren—who has Fallen from another group, the Immortal Blessed.

“Witch King” across two different timelines: Years ago, when Kai, Ziede and Tahren first meet and help save the world from the crushing invasion of the Hierarchs, and in the story’s present, when the Rising World—an alliance of the surviving nations—is in jeopardy.

Ms. Wells creates uniquely fascinating cultures and abilities for the people who live in her universe, including magic systems that are fully developed and beautifully described. When Kai swallows a magical “intention” into his chest you can practically see it.

The heroes’ adventures together are exciting and their escapes clever; quibbles with the book are just that. There is supposed to be a grand conspiracy trying to topple the Rising World, and it would have been nice to see it in action outside the main group of characters. Also, there are a lot of names to keep track of. Fans of intricate fantasy may love that—but my aging brain needed a wiki.

A wonderfully original world, sympathetic characters and a solid quest make “Witch King” the satisfying fantasy you yearn for when named swords and cursed rings begin to grow stale.