“In an original world reminiscent of Edwardian England in the shadow of a World War, cabals of noble families use their unique magical gifts to control the fates of nations, while one young man seeks only to live a life of his own.
Magic marked Miles Singer for suffering the day he was born, doomed either to be enslaved to his family’s interest or to be committed to a witches’ asylum. He went to war to escape his destiny and came home a different man, but he couldn’t leave his past behind. The war between Aeland and Laneer leaves men changed, strangers to their friends and family, but even after faking his own death and reinventing himself as a doctor at a cash-strapped veterans’ hospital, Miles can’t hide what he truly is.
When a fatally poisoned patient exposes Miles’ healing gift and his witchmark, he must put his anonymity and freedom at risk to investigate his patient’s murder. To find the truth he’ll need to rely on the family he despises, and on the kindness of the most gorgeous man he’s ever seen.” (via Goodreads)
But what pushes Witchmark from very good to great are the deep undercurrents. This isn’t just a story about cool magic and those who abuse it. Under the surface is a painful discussion of slavery, exploitation, and colonialism. Aeland is a wealthy land with idyllic weather. Most never think about where that success comes from, and at whose expense. Miles understands the high cost to keep Aeland powerful, but is privileged enough that there are exploitative aspects even he doesn’t notice until it’s too late.
This is a bit out of left field, but Grace reminds me a lot of 19th century abolitionists. Although they fought for an end to slavery, they weren’t interested in civil rights or equity. Likewise, Grace feels guilty about profiting off a system where her brother and other secondaries must surrender their freedom and become a living battery for her and her ilk, but not enough to actually stop it. Privilege is relative, but power can only be gained or lost. Those with all the power cannot acknowledge that those below them might be like them without admitting the whole system is flawed. Do you know what the early triggers for the Civil Rights Movement were? African Americans coming home after helping the Allies win WWII—a war in which they were shunted into the worst jobs possible—only to be forced back into Jim Crow. Hell, we fought a civil war over our obsession with brutal exploitation. Which is why it doesn’t matter that some Secondaries may be more powerful than Storm-Singers or have valuable wartime skills. Miles said it best: “I want freedom, and so you want to chain me, to teach the others they should be like me… You’ll always need more power, Grace… However nobly you intend to use it, you’ll always need more.” I mean, if that isn’t a metaphor for the dumpster fire of a world we live in today, I don’t know what is…
“I want you to help me find it. You and Nick Elliot are the only witches I’ve met in Aeland. Mr. Elliot is dead. But here you are, alive and free.”
And I had promised Nick, hadn’t I? He had given me his power so I could find the… truth. About the war, I guessed. The war I had come to loathe, the war that had left so many men shattered inside. Mr. Hunter wanted to help, but he knew too much about me already, too many of my secrets. I had no choice but to deny it. “You want my help in finding out who poisoned Nick Elliot, and knowing will lead you to— No, it’s insane. I can’t help you.”
“You can, Sir Christopher. And I can help you.”
My breath caught in my throat. This was worse than blackmail.
I had been found.
Run, I told my useless legs. Run!
“You’re afraid,” he said. “Don’t be. I’m in as much danger as you.” Mr. Hunter raised one hand clenched in a fist. The edges of his fingers glowed red, and he opened his hand to show me a tiny light. The core of it glowed brighter than a candle, brighter than gas lamps, nearly as bright as aether.
If he told the truth, it could only mean two things: He was a lowborn witch in fine clothing, or he was a runaway mage like me. He offered me this show of magic as a token of trust. He could report me, but I could report him back.
If he wasn’t lying. But I should report him, if I knew what was good for me.
To read the rest of my review of Witchmark by C.L. Polk, head over to Tor.com.
Thanks to Tor.com Publishing for sending me a review copy.
Do the world a favor and buy this book from your local indie bookstore or borrow it from your public library.