Nathan’s review of Soulstar by CL Polk
See my review of the previous book in the series, Stormsong, here.
I had very mixed reactions to Soulsong, the final book in CL Polks Kingston Cycle. I’m actually not sure how I feel about it overall; I would say that it is the weakest entry in the series, but there are also elements I really liked, and I was engaged by it through its entire 300 pages. I liked it, but it also had a weird hollowness to it that I am having a hard time putting into words.
I think that my hesitation stems from the fact that as an individual story, Soulsong is pretty good, but that as part of the larger Kingston Cycle is doesn’t really fit. I’ll go through each of these separately, since my opinion on the book varies greatly depending on which aspect we are looking at.
At the larger series level, this book is marketed as the “thrilling final volume” of the Kingston Cycle. Now, I get that it doesn’t say conclusion to the Kingston Cycle, but it is what is expected from being the final volume of the trilogy. And while it does conclude in a rushed and harried fashion, in no way does it seem like a fitting way to close out this world and these characters. A lot of these problems stem back in the second book of the series, Stormsong, and in Soulstar the problems only multiply. The plotting and pacing of this series are wonky and inconsistent that the overall plot arc doesn’t have a natural progression or flow. While I really like the idea of each book having a different protagonist/POV character, this forced Polk to too dramatically change the main focus of each novel. This caused the series to spiral into too many numerous and unconnected directions. The series became over-stuffed with magic, large world-ending storms, the fae-like Amarithines, witches, ghosts, head-hopping soldiers, international conflict, local politics, sexism, classism, and more. CL Polk tried to shove everything into this world, and thus none of it is well-realized.
Perhaps nothing exemplifies this more than the Amarithines. I know I also commented this on my Stormsong review, but the end of Witchmark set up this big conflict with the Amarithines. This conflict never came to pass, and honestly in Soulstar they are little more than an afterthought. There are all of these illusions to the special magic and realm of the Amarithines that Polk introduces, and then quickly drops. It feels as if Polk completely lost interest in the more magical elements of her stories, and decided that she would rather tell more political and grounded stories as the series progressed. While I love a good dose of politics, it made the whole series feel incomplete from a grander worldbuilding perspective. This series needed a dose of Coco Chanel’s “take one thing off” perspective.
At the end of the day, the impression I got as a reader is that Polk didn’t have a long term plan for the series and added on each book as it came up. We saw in Stormsong and see again in Soulstar how Polk has to change and tweak things to make them fit their vision for the new book. We saw Grace change her personality from Witchmark to Stormsong (although that one fit the narrative), and other characters (King Severin, in particular) change their personalities in Soulstar to fit Polk’s agenda for the book. I love a good “screw the monarchy” storyline, but it was too sharp of a turn from what Polk had going on before.
This all lead up to an ending that is too clean and glibly wraps up trilogy-long plot arcs, invalidating the existence and importance of many of these elements. As a series closer, this book is a total misfire.
However, as an individual story I quite liked it. If you don’t care about the long running storylines from the earlier volumes and want to just spend more time swept up in Polk’s storytelling, this book is quite beautiful. The one plot arc that Soulstar continues is the freeing of the witches from aether asylums and how the country is now going to produce energy. Robin, who appeared as a minor character in Witchmark but who is unrecognizable in her characterization here, reconnects with her spouse, Zelind, who has been imprisoned as a witch. Together, they team up with Grace and Miles to lead a political revolution to liberate the witches and all of the down-trodden of Aeland.
Robin is a fiercely feminist character who seeks to challenge the system at every level. She is loyal and outspoken, and is willing to do whatever it takes to enact a Marxist-style overthrow of the government. What results is kind of a mash up of some elements of Witchmark and Stormsong. There is another murder (it’s not a Kingston Cycle novel without a good mystery!), but it is less “let’s solve the crime” than Witchmark, and it is political with less political intrigue and power games than in Stormsong. What results is a unique novel in the fantasy genre – a political fantasy that is actually about the uprising of the underclass. I just wish there was more emphasis on these working-class characters, and less focus on sociopolitical elites like Grace.
Polk also continues to write some of my favorite core relationships in the fantasy genre. Robin and Zelind, like Miles/Tristan before them, do not have a perfect relationship, but it is a relationship built on mutual respect and love. Polk allows her core couple to have disagreements and conflict without feeling like it has to lead to contrived drama, break-ups, and miscommunication/misunderstandings. It also helps that Robin and Zelind are slightly older and have a long-standing relationship, unlike the burgeoning romance we saw in the previous volumes (and in most romance-centered stories).
The plot moves at a good pace, and I flew through this book with all of its the assassinations, plots, betrayals, and themes of love, family, and community. As I said above, there does seem to be something missing here, but I think that might just be a result of the fact that Polk was trying to tie this into the larger Kingston Cycle while wanting to tell a story that would have been best served as a standalone.
Overall, if you were a fan of the original stories told in Witchmark and Stormsong (especially the elements concerning the enslavement of the witches), you will really like Soulstar. Polk brings the same energy and breezy pacing to this final volume. However, if you were expecting some big trilogy-wide climax, or even more worldbuilding with the elements have we have already seen, you are likely to walk away disappointed.
Concluding Thoughts: Soulstar works as a good independent story about the importance of community and collective political resistance, but fumbles as the conclusion to the Kingston Cycle. Polk seems to have lost interest in most of the elements she introduced in previous volumes, but her storytelling remains fast-paced with a cast of memorable characters. Polk fans should pick this up for the individual story its telling and not as a grand climax to the series.