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Having thoroughly enjoyed her Books of the Raksura, I was excited for a new fantasy novel by Martha Wells, her first in some time after writing several books in her acclaimed science fiction series, The Murderbot Diaries. (Although I thought All Systems Red was decent, I didn’t find it captivating enough to continue the series and much preferred her other books I’d read.) Unfortunately, Witch King fell far short of my expectations despite a strong start and some interesting ideas.

This standalone epic fantasy novel begins with the demon Kai awakening outside his body, not knowing what happened or how he got there—only that his old body appears to have been dead for about a year and one of his closest friends is imprisoned nearby. Fortunately, he’s able to inhabit the body of a recently deceased man and release his friend from her captivity, but she doesn’t remember any more about how they got into their situation than he does. The two then set out to uncover the truth about what happened to them and find the friend’s wife, and their search alternates with a past storyline showing how they came to be legends and companions.

When reduced to its bare bones, Witch King sounds great: a story of found family bound by their involvement in a rebellion, alternating between how they came together to defeat a Great Evil in the first place and a present-day storyline involving two of those characters trying to solve a very personal mystery. I was immediately intrigued by Kai’s present predicament and quest to discover who wanted him out of the picture and why, and I also wanted to learn more about the demons of this world, especially after reading about their pact with humans and Kai’s first experiences as a mortal. He came to the realm when he occupied the body of a recently deceased woman whose family wanted to ensure their line continued, leaving his true physical form in the underearth and gaining the power to drain life from mortals when he did so.

However, it was struggle to read after the first two chapters, which introduced the aforementioned parts that piqued my interest. Considering the massive size of my TBR pile these days, I probably would have given up on it if it had been a book by a new-to-me author. But since it was Martha Wells, I persevered and hoped that everything would suddenly come together and make me glad I stuck with it. Sadly, that never happened, though I continued to appreciate many of the ideas that went into this novel. I love when books explore how the story doesn’t end just because the heroes succeeded in their quest to change the world and how others may strive to undo what they fought so hard to create. There will still always be problems and conflicts between people (or demons or witches or whatever), and since this follows long-lived characters, it shows that later generations may not see things from the same perspective.

Given these concepts, Witch King was brimming with potential, but it was just so bland. The writing does its job, but it’s rather plain and overly descriptive when it comes to aspects like appearance and dress. I wouldn’t have had so much of a problem with this if I were more invested in the characters and their stories, but other than the occasional bit of snappy dialogue, they too were devoid of charisma: for a bunch of legends with historical significance and awesome powers, they were dull to follow. It didn’t feel like the story really delved into them as individuals, and given the focus on found family, it didn’t seem to dig into the intricacies of these relationships and what made them fit together. Of course, it’s not unrealistic that a group of people (or demons or witches or whatever) would find each other by being on the same side of a rebellion, a common cause that drew them together in the course of seeking justice, change, and their own survival. However, if I’m reading about a group like this, I want to see what really makes them mesh. The members of this found family clearly cared about each other, but I felt like they were mainly close because they were in the same place at the same time with the same goals—not because they had personalities that drew them together and made them lifelong friends.

Although I didn’t find it entertaining for the most part, I have some rather mixed feelings on Witch King. There’s nothing especially “bad” about its writing, plot, or characters, and it has an original world and some interesting concepts thrown into the mix—and that makes it better as a whole than a lot of books. Nevertheless, it lacks the sort of prose and personality that makes reading fiction so enjoyable, that special spark that makes a book compelling and difficult to put down. It was all too easy to put this one down after the very beginning, and as much as I loved the idea of it, it could be a tedious reading experience.

My Rating: 5/10

Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from Witch King

Read “Deconstructing Epics” by Martha Wells (her Women in SF&F Month 2023 guest post on Witch King and more)