Pride Reads: “Witchmark” by C.L. Polk
Another year, another Pride Reads challenge! I gave myself this challenge a few years ago after a Book Con panel on LGBTQ+ books, when I realized that I didn’t read nearly enough. Every June, I try to only read books by queer authors or featuring queer protagonists. This year, I started with Witchmark by C.L. Polk.
Witchmark is set in a fictional world based on Edwardian England, where magic plays a significant role in everyday life, but it is a secret thing reserved only for the elites. Our main character, Miles Singer, escaped his doomed, privileged life where he would be expected to act as a battery, powering his more powerful sister. Instead, Miles enlisted in the army and went to war as a medic, using his healing gift. Home from the war, he hides in a veterans’ hospital, trying to help returning soldiers who are starting to come home afflicted with a mysterious compulsion.
I really enjoyed Witchmark. I’m a sucker for a good romance, but the focus of this story is on the mystery, and I also love a good mystery. (I mean, the romance is still pretty good.) What is happening to the soldiers? How is it connected to Miles’s family? Who is this charming, handsome man who just steamrolled into Miles’s life and where do I get one for myself?
Polk has crafted a fantastic alternate world where magic is both important and ignored. Classism is at the heart of Aeland’s magic system, where there is no difference between a “witch” and a “mage” except how many zeroes are in their bank account. Mages are landed, titled, and revered, responsible for calming the country’s chaotic weather. Whereas witches are poor, unconnected, and treated as ticking time bombs, paraded through farcical trials and shunted off into asylums. The double standard is staggering, but completely believable. “Rules for thee and not for me” is not just something that exists in fiction.
But even among mages, there is a social division. Miles is considered a “Secondary”, someone with a magical talent that is not considered useful. In Aeland, only mages with the ability to control the weather are important, and anyone else is used for their power. Miles ran away rather than be bound to his sister, Grace, and forced into her servitude. This adds a whole other layer to the elitism; Miles can heal grievous wounds, has literally saved lives, but it isn’t deemed important, and he had to flee in order to be able to use the gifts he was born with.
I really admire Miles’s determination throughout the book. He grew up wealthy and willingly gave up all the trappings and comforts of a life among the elite. While it’s never discussed in great detail, he does speak about his experiences in the war, and they were extremely traumatic. He is adamant about using his talents to heal people. His dedication to his patients and his strong moral compass make him a sympathetic character whom you can’t help but root for.
In this world, it seems that homosexuality is accepted only under specific circumstances. When Miles finds himself drawn to Tristan, the handsome stranger who brought a murder victim to Miles’s hospital, he laments that he’s past the age where “that sort” of behavior would be permissible. Apparently, it’s ok to be gay, but only until it’s time to settle down and get married. At least this is true for Miles, who would be expected to negotiate an “advantageous” match – both for political and magical power. It doesn’t really come up, but everyone’s attitude towards Miles and Tristan’s relationship leads me to believe that if Miles were poor (or non-magical), no one would care.
As is custom with me, I did not realize that this was part of a series when I picked it up! (If you’ve been reading my reviews longer than a few months, you’ll know that this happens to me a lot.) Witchmark doesn’t end with a cliffhanger per se, but it’s very clear throughout the novel that there is no way this can be contained within one book. As Miles and Tristan investigate what is happening to the soldiers, they uncover a dark secret at the very heart of Aeland that threatens everyone. Miles also learns that much of what he “knows” to be true are, in fact, lies. So, you know, just your standard everyday mystery.
Because the focus is on the mystery, the romance takes a backseat. Miles and Tristan are clearly drawn to each other, and I thought that Polk did a good job of navigating the balancing act between both plots. There is a bit of a jump at the end that turns the relationship from “slow burn with a bit of yearning” into “wow, that’s fast, you know you’ve only known each other a week” which I found a little difficult to believe. I just found it a little abrupt and thought it would have been better to wait until the next book in the series.
Witchmark is an entertaining, engaging read that drops you into a world that’s so similar to our own and yet vastly unfamiliar. It pulls you into a mystery you can’t help but want to piece together and tosses in a love story because these two characters literally can’t keep their hands off of each other. And while it doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending, you can’t help but be hopeful about these characters’ futures, even if the outlook is not so good.
Witchmark by C.L. Polk is published by Tor.com and is currently available wherever books are sold.
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Author: Jamie Sugah
Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from The Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, which is available through Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, anime, and conventions in the NYC area.
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