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Nathan’s review of Witch King by Martha Wells

While this novel wasn’t bad by any means, I regret to say that I was pretty disappointed by Witch King, which is probably more a result of how hyped I was for Wells’ first new foray into the fantasy genre in quite a while.

Witch King follows the demon Witch King, Kai, as he is willing to do anything to rebel against autocratic power regimes and saves the ones he loves. What ultimately results is a book full of ideas, but it just too abstract to really be the immersive fantasy read I was hoping for.

Like any book from Martha Wells, Witch King is bursting with creativity. The world, while definitely pulling from West and South Asian cultures in some of its customs, feels wholly original and avoids the problem having the “nation that is a veiled East Asia” and the “nation that is a veiled Scandinavia” (so on and so forth). Wells not only subverts many of the tropes of the fantasy genre, she smashes through them, grinds them with her boot, and proceeds onwards. If there was anything that I was completely enthralled by in this book it was Wells’ purse imagination in the way that she constructed the world around her characters.

But I think at times Wells’ uninhibited creativity may have come at a bit of a detriment to my overall engagement with the book. I think there were many occasions where the world felt so different, so new, and so alien that I had a difficult time really centering myself in the story and setting. It was almost as if Wells at times struggled to put her ideas down into words and clearly transport what was going on in her head into the heads of her readers. I am a very visual reader; I like to be able to immerse myself into a book to the extent where I can run a vivid movie in my mind as I move my way through the pages. I couldn’t do that in Witch King because I had a hard time grounding myself in the story; I was often left confused about what exactly was going on and why exactly it was happening.

While I do ascribe some of these problems to issues with the writing itself, some of the confusion was also intentional by the author. Readers who like to feel lost in the narrative, who like to feel uncomfortable with their understanding of what the heck is going on, will like how Wells structures the book. The book occurs across to different time periods – one that would be the “current” time period, while the other is a few years in the past. As the novel progresses, each timeline fills in the small details of the other as the overarching plot slowly comes into focus. Therefore, while I was still often abstracted from what exactly was going on at any given time, I also did start get a better grasp on the world, plot, and characters as the book progressed. If you are someone who likes books like Malazan or A Touch of Light where you are just dropped into a story and told to catch up on your own, you will be delighted by what Wells does here.

There is a similar sparseness to worldbuilding here that Wells also exhibited in her Murderbot Diaries series. While minimal descriptions work in that series of novellas because it is set in a pretty generic futuristic sci-fi setting, here the world is so new and different that I think the book needed to fill things in which just a tad more depth and detail.

Unless you really hate what you are reading in the early goings-on of Witch King, give it at least 25%. The book has a pretty slow pace overall (mostly because you can feel Wells being very careful not to show her hand too much in any individual chapter), but by a quarter of the way through the novel the plot starts to kick it into high gear and things start to come into focus; by that point if you haven’t locked in, then it isn’t going to get any better for you.

Because I was struggling to become immersed in Witch King, I had a really hard time really connecting with any of the characters. The main character, Kai, was obviously the most developed, as readers get a clear sense of his complex and often contradictory personalities. He is a demon that (to put it lightly) does a lot of bad things to people, but he also has a clear moral compass, forms genuine relationships with people, and ultimately emerges as a sympathetic character as Wells pushes him into ethical dilemmas and tough corners.

However, I had a hard time making emotional connections with the other characters, even our second main character, Ziede, who got a lot of words dedicated to her character and yet I still had a hard time pinning her down. As you get further and further away from the main characters, the problems only multiply. Other characters, such as the Immortal Tahren play a big role in the book, but whose character is relatively flat and lifeless. Of course, other readers may feel differently and this might just be a “me” problem. Outside of the outstanding Murderbot character, I never really connected with any of Wells’ characters in that other series either. I ultimately may just not vibe with the characters that Wells’ writes.

Did I enjoy my time with Witch King? Moderately yes. While the pacing was inconsistent, causing my engagement to be inconsistent, the creatively of the book ultimately overcame the other flaws to keep my reading until the very end. But this was the kind of book where I was interested while I was reading it, but I was never running to go and pick it back up.

Readers who like wholly original worlds and like challenging fantasy reads with little handholding will get a lot of enjoyment out of Witch King, but others may want to look elsewhere for your next favorite read. Ultimately, the ideas here are great, but the execution was “only” good.

Concluding Thoughts: Witch King, Wells’ big return to fantasy, is a novel boiling over with creativity in the worldbuilding, but the structure of the book and its inconsistent and slow pacing make the book a bit of a difficult read that is hard to immerse yourself in. I spent so much time trying to situate myself in the world and plot that I couldn’t really connect with any of the characters, which was a disappointment. Wells obviously has very real talent (as exemplified in her extensive bibliography), but this is not her at her best. Pick it up if you like wholly original worldbuilding, but otherwise I don’t feel this is a must-read.


Thank you for reading my review of Witch King!


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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