by Kristen B.
Ursula LeGuin wrote a famous short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” about a utopian city with a catch. The peaceful and joyous life of the city’s citizens is made possible only through the absolute suffering of a single child. Everyone is made aware of the bargain as they reach adulthood, and those who can’t sanction it become those who walk away. In Witchmark (also available as an e-audiobook), author C. L. Polk answers LeGuin’s moral question more firmly: Those who can’t sanction a bad bargain are destined to unmake it.
Meet Miles, a war veteran who works as a psych doctor in a veterans hospital. The book begins with a dying man dumped, almost literally, into Miles’ arms. Our brave doctor has been tracking some worrisome patterns at the hospital, with traumatized veterans reporting a mysterious malaise, one that actively promotes domestic violence and mayhem. Miles sees the connection but can’t figure out why it’s happening or how to stop it. Side note: the role of newspapers in this series delights me!
Miles has turned his back on a wealthy but constrained life to use his healing talents. In Kingston, capital city of Aeland, the uppermost class possesses magic to control the weather, particularly the huge storms that threaten every winter. Other witches are considered dangerous to themselves and others, and they are institutionalized around the country. The author provides an antidote to all these troubles with a lovely romance blossoming between Miles and Tristan Hunter. Tristan has a rather unusual background that plays into solving both the initial murder and the other issues.
Polk continues to weave a Gordian knot of interrelated troubles, because the problems aren’t limited to a single world. There’s also the Solace, which exists parallel to Aeland, where souls go to reside after death. The Amaranthines rule there, an immortal race that serves as a sort of overarching moral conscience to the regular world, though one with real teeth. It turns out that they have noticed strange happenings during and after the recent war, and they are concerned because no Aelander souls have come into the Solace in decades. Therein hangs the rest of the story, but I don’t want to spoil it for you.
Witchmark sets the stage for the next two books, which are substantially more political in nature. Miles’ sister, heir to the family’s fortune and magic, becomes the main point of view for the second book, Stormsong (also in e-audiobook format). Grace has to balance the country’s needs against her own as her one true love also happens to be a star newspaper reporter. She must further balance her magical duties to protect Aeland from increasingly violent storms with her political position as Chancellor to a queen who has no desire to make necessary changes. A locked door political assassination only adds to her difficulties.
The third book, Soulstar, moves to yet another character, Robin, who has been part of the proceedings all along as a nurse and friend at Miles’ hospital and a key player in Grace’s political striving. She belongs to a minority and operates as a secret witch, whose talent lies in seeing and communicating with the dead. As the books progress, we see Aeland’s highly inequitable, stratified, royalist society change drastically. Revolution is the name of the game in this final book. Modern parallels are clear, but it’s still fun to root for the underdogs who want a seat at the table and their fair share of pie. Maybe what we need is a magical, immortal race to encourage us to live with compassion and sympathy for others.
All three books take place in Kingston, in which Polk gives us a deeply imagined, tangible city that seems as real as the wonderful, persistent people who live there. In each installment, you get a rousing story, a queer romance, and a hero who is trying to make the world a better place. Because if you can’t condone living in a society that excels only by requiring the suffering of some people, what does that require of you?
Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, stitch, dance, and watch baseball (but not all at the same time).