Witchmark is the first published book by C.L. Polk and is nominated for this year's Nebula award for Best Novel, which is quite an accomplishment. It is an unusual melange of various forms: romance, fantasy, murder mystery and an Edwardian story of manners.
The central character is Christopher Miles Singer, who is a former military surgeon serving as a psychiatrist treating veterans of the war he was also in for “battle fatigue.” Miles also happens to be gay and a witch. He lives in Aeland where both of these identities are heavily stigmatized and must remain secret because even though magic is highly regarded, it can only be wielded by high-status mages. All people discovered to be witches are believed to eventually go insane and are sent off to asylums. Similarly, since Aeland is modeled after Edwardian England, the cultural expectations of men and women are centered around heteronormativity and rigid gender roles.
The book begins with Miles being present when another witch dies (having been poisoned) and gives his soul (and associated powers) to Miles, providing him with a second "witchmark." This is the primary event which animates the plot because Miles spends the rest of the book trying to discover who killed Nick Elliott. He is assisted in this investigation by a handsome stranger, Tristan Hunter, who has secrets of his own.
Pretty early on we learn that Miles ran off to join the military to avoid his family’s expectations and plans for his future as a “Secondary” to his sister Grace, who is a mage. Apparently mages get their power from using bonded (some might say enslaved) Secondary witches as sources. The plot thickens as Miles reconnects with his family and the threads of the story begin to connect as Miles and Tristan discover links between why veterans with battle fatigue appear to be going crazy and murdering their families, what Nick Elliott discovered about witch asylums that got him killed and why Miles’ family is so keen to have him conform to their expectations that he be "seconded" to his sister.
Overall, I would say I was pleased with the gay romantic elements of the story but frustrated with the plot holes and the pacing of the story resolution (everything is revealed in a headlong rush in the last couple chapters). The primary weakness is the world-building. The reader is given lots of information (primarily through Miles’ thoughts) about the constricted cultural mores of the Aeland society and glimpses of the magic system and magical hierarchy of Witchmark’s world. But this is not done in a way that really gives the reader a fair chance to solve the mysteries of the plot and, in my case, distanced me from the book. I (sort of) care about Miles and Tristan, but do I really care that Aeland society is based on a lie and that it’s war with Laneer is so horrible that their enemies have planned a devastatingly deadly revenge? Not really. Also, it is not really explained clearly enough (to me) why Miles is so invested in finding out who killed Nick Elliott, especially initially before his connection to a bigger conspiracy is known. I think the source of most of my nonchalance towards “Witchmark” is the Edwardian setting, which is something we have seen before many times yet is simultaneously off-putting.
RATING: 3.5 STARS, rounded up to FOUR for the degree of difficult involved in writing a gay romantic steampunk fantasy debut novel.
Title: Witchmark (Kingston Cycle, #1).
Author: C.L. Polk.
Paperback: 318 pages.
Date Published: June 19, 2018.
Date Read: April 30, 2019.
GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★☆ (4.0/5.0).
OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.42/4.0).