Book Review : Witch King

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review : Witch KingWitch King by Martha Wells
Published by Tordotcom on May 30th 2023
Pages: 432
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Source: NetGalley

A story of power and friendship, of trust and betrayal, and of the families we choose.
"I didn't know you were a... demon.""You idiot. I'm the demon."Kai's having a long day in Martha Wells' Witch King....
After being murdered, his consciousness dormant and unaware of the passing of time while confined in an elaborate water trap, Kai wakes to find a lesser mage attempting to harness Kai’s magic to his own advantage. That was never going to go well.
But why was Kai imprisoned in the first place? What has changed in the world since his assassination? And why does the Rising World Coalition appear to be growing in influence?
Kai will need to pull his allies close and draw on all his pain magic if he is to answer even the least of these questions.
He’s not going to like the answers.

Over the years, I’ve seen countless rave reviews and hype about author Martha Wells’s Murderbot series, but have never gotten around to reading any of them. I tend to prefer fantasy to science fiction myself, so when I read that Martha Wells was releasing a new fantasy novel, Witch King, I was super excited and immediately requested an ARC. Unfortunately, though I really wanted to love Witch King, I really struggled with the novel and barely made it 43 percent of the way through it.


Witch King opens with a list of characters, which should have been my first red flag that this novel wouldn’t be for me. This type of list seems to be the new trend in fantasy novels with big casts and while it is a useful tool, I don’t like when this list prefaces the novel, itself, personally, especially when it’s a brand new book and not a continuation of a series. When I’m reading this list before even starting the book, all of the characters’ names, their relationships, jobs, and whatever else is included in the list, mean absolutely nothing to me. All this type of list serves to do is overwhelm me before I even start the novel. And I am certainly not able to memorize this list of characters either, so I presume that I am supposed to constantly reference this list as I’m reading. 


This constant referencing is something I really don’t enjoy doing when I’m reading for pleasure or when I’m on my Kindle. I am sadly just not good at navigating back and forth on the device, but I imagine it’s just fine for other people. Frankly, I’m more comfortable getting to know characters through actually reading the novel itself and the list at the beginning just feels like an excuse for authors to not have to introduce their characters to the readers, which is exactly what happens in Witch King. To me, this list is not an equivalent exchange for the initial introduction to characters and it’s a bit off-putting to witness characters appearing for the first time on the page referenced as if they and their past deeds are already known to me. Perhaps other readers will like this presentation style of Witch King more, which throws you right into the story with little to no preamble or set up, but it’s unfortunately, not to my taste. 


I’ve found in my reading of fantasy novels that there are generally two types of fantasy novels: one that explains every last detail of world building and one that throws you into the middle of the world and expects you to figure out everything about it from mere context alone. Witch King is definitely the latter. Though normally I like when authors assume I am smart enough to figure out the details of their world, I literally could not manage to do this in Witch King, which throws terms like “expositor,” “heart pearls,” “underearth,” “hierarch,” and more at the reader with little to no explanation. The world-building is complex and it’s not something I was able to put together on my own through the context clues, even though I made quite the effort to concentrate on all of the details.


To make matters even more challenging, Witch King alternates between chapters in the present and then chapters taking place in the past for the entirety of the novel. So, not only was I already struggling to understand who the characters were and their relationships with each other, and  what was happening in the present, but I now also had to decipher what had happened in the past and how exactly these past events correlated to what was currently in the present. I guess I didn’t manage to read far enough to ever figure out the latter.


Though this jumping from time periods or perspectives or host bodies didn’t bother me so much in other novels with nontraditional storytelling and body swapping, like A Chorus of Dragons, it was a huge problem for me in Witch King. At about 30% of the way through the novel, I finally got the concept I’d been struggling to get a full picture of through what breadcrumbs had been dropped on the subject— the “underearth” and how demons use it—explained to me in one of the chapters taking place in the past. It felt like this explanation came far too late for me to fully understand the prior events of the novel and I did not want to go back and try to make sense of them, again.


Sadly, this lack of explanation for both the characters and the world-building made it very hard for me to feel connected to anything in Witch King at large. I really liked the concepts of world-building, which seemed wildly original, and the general ideas of the characters, but I never felt like I fully grasped them, and wasn’t able to care for them as a result. This unique narrative framework made for a very frustrating reading experience for me personally. Truly, I wanted to comprehend everything going on, but I couldn’t, and I wanted to like the characters, but I didn’t truly understand who they were, where they were from, what they were capable of, and their exact motivations. The entire time reading Witch King, I felt like I was grasping at straws that were being repeatedly hurled at me to only and instantaneously slip through my fingers. And though Witch King had initially ensnared me with its opening, which sees the main character escaping a magical (and quite literal), death trap, before I knew it, I dreaded picking the novel back up.


Even after fighting my way through to 43% of the novel, the equivalent of 185 pages, I cannot tell you anything about the titular Witch King, narrator Kai, other than the extreme basics. The man’s a demon who inhabits the bodies of mortals regardless of gender identity. He also seems to be notorious and feared and is referred to as “The Demon,” or “The Witch King,” but I can’t tell you if he’s actually a witch or a king or is all three things—a demon, a witch, and a king. If I’m correct, in the past, he was referred to as a fourth demon prince, but I guess, somewhere along the way, there was a spot opening and he got a promotion? He also likes his grandmother. 


I think a lot of people will really enjoy the characters, who seem to have a turbulent found family type of thing going on (something I typically love), and the original world-building, as well as the interesting way in which Witch King presents them, but sadly, I am just not one of those people. I prefer a more traditional and linear storytelling approach (at least when so little is being explained in both timelines), and as much as I wanted to like Witch King, it unfortunately just left far too much to the imagination for me. Readers who enjoy fantasy novels with queer relationships and identities, with unique world-building, and don’t mind non-linear storytelling with scant explanations will probably really enjoy Witch King. 



Book Review : Witch King - Blogging with Dragons

Posted April 20, 2023 in ARCS, Book Reviews, Fantasy

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2 responses to “Book Review : Witch King

  1. yes I had some of the same issues. I enjoyed it anyway. But I also noted in my review that I’d like to read it a second time looking at the ebook while listening to the audio since I felt I wasn’t grasping everything.

    • I’m glad you were still able to enjoy it! I definitely think that this is one of those books where multiple readings/listens would illuminate a lot of things.

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