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Nathan’s review of Stormsong by CL Polk.

*This review contains spoilers from Witchmark, the first book in the Kingston Cycle

Witchmark ended with a bang, as our main protagonists Miles and Tristan shut down the horrific Aeland practice of torturing witches to power the country. It was the classic fantasy climax, with the complete dismantling of the oppressive power structure in order to create a fairer and more equitable society.

What CL Polk explores in Stormsong is what comes next. How do you rebuild and enact a new power structure with the void you just created? In the wake of the events of Witchmark, Aeland has new problems. The government is in chaos after so many of the “First Circle” mages are imprisoned for violating human rights; without the First Circle, Aeland has little ability to control the dangerous weather events that constantly threaten it; the country is in the midst of an energy crisis because there is nothing to replace the energy being stolen from the witches; and there are international crises as the Amarithenes (the fae-like peoples) are extremely unhappy with the way Aeland has treated their enemy, Laneer. CL Polk takes the “happy ever after” from Witchmark and spins these problems in a narrative to nicely combines an intriguing mystery, political intrigue, and a light dose of sapphic romance.

Our first-person POV character for Stormsong is Grace, Miles’ sister who appeared in Witchmark. Some readers may be disappointed that Miles takes a backseat in this book (he is still present, but plays a pretty minor role), but I thought Polk made the perfect choice to switch up the POV character. In Witchmark, Grace was a member of the ruling elite. Her father, who she was still close to, was a high ranking government official, allowing her to play a significant role in the governing of Aeland. In Stormsong, Grace is on a quest to right the wrongs she helped perpetuate and bring those in power to justice. With Grace as our POV character, we get a closer sense of the political games being played at the top of the Aeland social hierarchy, including an expanded role for the Aeland royal family (Severin in particular is an interesting addition to the support cast). We also get to explore new sides to Grace, one of the most interesting and contradictory characters from the first book. As much as I liked Miles, I didn’t miss his presence as our lead character one bit.

I will say that if there is anything that I think Polk could have done better it’s that Grace really doesn’t ever get her own come-uppance for her role in the events of Witchmark. Yes, she saw the error of her ways and helped to solve the problem and she got her own redemption arc (an arc that continues in Stormsong), but Polk here wants the reader to believe that everything was her dad’s fault. Part of this is because we are getting the story distilled through Grace’s eyes, but I would have liked Grace to take just a bit more ownership of her own terrible choices.

One character that I really ended up loving in Stormsong is Grace’s love interest, Avia. Avia, an investigative journalist, is the perfect foil for Grace’s political involvements, and Polk nicely explores the intricacies, contradictions, and complexities of their relationship. As Grace and Avia’s romance develops as the book progresses, they seek to balance their own, sometimes competing, interests, and they explore how this blossoming romance affects both of their personal and professional lives. Like in Witchmark, the romance elements are present, but they do not consume the novel. There are a couple of romance tropes (like a “single bed” scene), but Grace and Avia’s relationship grows slowly and organically over the course of the novel. It is a much messier relationship (at least at first) than what Miles and Tristan experienced, but is believable and still a couple you can root for.

While the romance elements remain much in the background, pervading the book as a whole, Stormsong‘s main focus is on politics and the mystery. I love both of these things in my fantasy, so I was happy that these really ramped up; however, there were some problems with the pacing in this book. The biggest issue is that the beginning of the book is so plodding. It takes seemingly forever for anything to happen (including the murder that sets off most of the rest of the events of the novel), and the beginning of Stormsong spins its wheels as Polk figures out how to make something actually happen after the events of Witchmark. Once the book actually gets moving about 1/4-1/3 of the way in I was completely enthralled and the pace picks up. This was one of those books where it took me three days to read 100 pages, and then I read the other 250 pages in a single day. If you are a reader who wanted to know about the political structure of Aeland, this book will be for you!

However, if you don’t like a lot of characters standing around talking about political alliances, inheritance patterns, and passing new legislation, this book may be a bit of a slog for you throughout. Readers who were hoping to learn more about the Amarithines may be dissatisfied that they are really only window dressings here; their main role in the story is to create another political hurdle for Grace. I thought this was a lost opportunity because the arrival of the Amarithines at the end of Witchmark seemed to portend big things to come….and nothing really comes. Throughout both Witchmark and Stormsong Polk gives us hints that there is a much wider political and magical world out there, but refuses to let us fully immerse ourselves into it. This robs the book a bit of its full potential, while also making some of the magical elements a tad confusing and underbaked.

Despite some of these hiccups, I still really enjoyed my time with Stormsong as I became engrossed into the politics and mystery. I did prefer Witchmark as a book overall, and this one won’t be an all-time favorite of mine, but it is a worthy follow-up for fans of (light) sapphic romance and murder mysteries.

Concluding Thoughts: While not as strong as its predecessor, Stormsong introduces some fascinating new ideas to the Kingston Cycle. Grace, once you get used to her, is a complicated and complex POV character, whose relationship with Avia Thorpe is the real standout element here. Some of the mystery and political elements can feel a bit plodding, and would have been better replaced with some “bigger” worldbuilding, but fans of Witchmark should be pleased with what Polk brings here.

Nathan

Nathan is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology where he specializes in death rituals of the Ice Age in Europe and queer theory. Originally from Ohio, he currently lives in Kansas where he teaches college anthropology, watches too much TV, and attempts to make the perfect macarons in a humid climate. He is also the co-host of The Dragonfire podcast with James Lloyd Dulin. He reads widely in fantasy and sci-fi and is always looking for new favorites!

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