Martha Wells moves away from Murderbots and back to fantasy with ‘Witch King’
Kaiisteron’s intimacy issues stem mostly from being a demon prince who can occasionally possess human bodies he touches and who often gains sustenance from draining vitality from living things with which he is in contact. Partly, though, his issues stem from a brutal upbringing in the demonic Underearth, partly because the Hierarchs cut him off (along with all demons on the surface) from his full Underearth body, and partly because the Hierarchs brutally murdered all but one of his human friends in the Saredi clans.
Despite these unpromising origins, Kai is the engaging eponym and heart of the team that protagonizes Martha Wells’ new novel Witch King. Following on from the multiple shorter publications that since 2017 (with a new one coming in November) comprise Wells’ snarkily comedic, future-set Murderbot Diaries, Witch King is a return to epic fantasy after a decade, complete with invading empires, genocides, popular rebellions, and multiple forms of magic.
In various bodies, male and female, Kai marches us through two world-defining conflicts about 60 years apart. We open with him awakening, partially amnesiac, after having being captured and rendered unconscious and powerless, surrounded by water. In parallel to that tale of his attempts to find his allies and work out what has happened to himself and world politics in his absence, Wells tells the earlier tale of Kai’s first embodiment as a young woman Enna in the Saredi clans and Kai-Enna’s adventures in the wars against the Hierarchs.
Even Kai’s one surviving Saredi acquaintance comes to consider him an abomination, so the roughly assembled group for the current adventure is a hodge podge of happenstance. Though not comic in the same arch way as Murderbot, Wells doesn’t lose her wit. For a while the group travel in the ghost of a ruined barge, — “It’s the memory of a barge…. It doesn’t know it’s not a real boat.” From a narrative point of view—in a world-building novel—a multi-ethnic group has the virtue of allowing the author to introduce many different cultures.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
Kai’s first task is to find his powerful witch friend Ziede who was also captured and, once he does that, they set off to find her wife, Tahren—a renegade Immortal Marshall. Those three represent three different magics (demon, witch, Immortal Blessed) that, in turn, differ from the Hierarch magic as practiced by Hierarch’s and their assistants, the Expositors. Along the way Kai and Ziede also pick up a witch and a waif and a couple of captives yet other cultures who they need to decide to trust or cut loose.
As you might expect from a multiple award-winning author, Witch King provides compelling characters and convincing queernorm world-building as well as leaving plenty of scope to continue the saga. However, not least because of the chthonic backstory and because of N.K. Jemisin’s blurb, the novel provokes comparison with the Broken Earth series. And, in comparison with that trilogy, Kai’s world seems, at least so far, less significant, less strange.