I’m a big fan of Wells’s “Murderbot” series so I wanted to give her new fantasy book a try! But I went in knowing that “Witch King” is nothing like the Murderbot novellas, and I didn’t expect it to be, either. These are all new characters in a world very different then what I was used to, so of course I didn’t go in expecting the same humor and voice that I get with Murderbot. I think a lot of people kind of forget or don’t realize that when starting this book… Which is a dual timeline of our main character, a demon named Kai, and his witch bestie, Ziede as they try to uncover who abducted them, why, and the greater conspiracy around that—all while going back 60 years to see a young Kai as he becomes the demon and Witch King we see in the present chapters. This is a very ambitious fantasy world full of complicated political intrigue and warring factions and races all with their own kind of magical abilities and belief systems. The magic system felt vague from start to finish, however, and I think only one timeline truly delivered on the experience I was hoping for from Wells.
The reader is dropped into the story AFTER everything has happened. After this massive war (with flavors of Christian colonialism which I liked and thought was handled well), and after Kai has, somehow, been captured. I’m all for starting a book when the action starts, but this was a confusing start as the world building gets strung along throughout the entire book, leaving everything—the magic system, the different factions in conflict, how the conflict began or ended—as this sort of vague experience that all the characters talk about without fully explaining. You get the impression of it, which is just enough to keep you (me?) from becoming completely lost, but not enough for me (you?) to say I GET this world and what happened. The book alternates between the present and past, usually with a chapter in the past interspersed between everything that happens in the present with the idea being that you get to see the parallels between the situations Kai and Ziede find themselves in. But I thought the chapters in the past were way more interesting, memorable, and just overall better than those in the present. I found the present chapters to be, unfortunately, forgettable which meant that I often was lost when we jumped back to present time after the chapters in the past. Plus the sheer number of characters in this book—some only in the past and some only in the present—made the conspiracy and political intrigue hard to follow.
The dual timeline is what actually makes it so hard to pin down my personal enjoyment of this book. Half the book was a bit lackluster and hard to follow, the other half was really engaging but you never really got enough of it (in my opinion). A lot of time this book felt like it was the sequel to something that I didn’t know about, where this really interesting world and its magic and fantastic creatures were all already established so the little snippets of world building you get this time were meant mainly to just be a reminder for something already well established. However, I really loved Kai as a character. Wells has a knack for writing soft, sad, murderous characters and Kai is no different. The way he learns to use pain as a fuel source for his magic was especially heartbreaking. There are hints of wonderful, complex relationships—especially between Ziede, Tahren, and Dahin—that I desperately wish we had more of. Which, again, is what makes this book so hard to rate; I didn’t get enough of the things I loved, and a good quarter of the book is easily forgettable, making the pacing… odd to say the least. It’s those chapters in the past that have me giving this book 3 stars, because without that, this book would have been very disappointing to be sure. Wells is still a wonderful writer, so this didn’t change that for me, the “Witch King” just makes me eager to go back to Murderbot!
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