Witchmark by C. L. Polk

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I had kept my eyes down while Father used suppers to praise his precocious daughter and recount my failures—of the day, of the week, of the year, those disappointments never left to scab over and heal. I fought the tears I couldn’t shed by counting the fan-tailed birds on Mother’s favorite tablecloth. Grace would be a Storm-Singer; I was a Secondary, destined to become my sister’s thrall.

The entire time I was reading Witchmark, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to another historical romance I loved – Hither, Page by Cat Sebastian. Although Hither, Page, doesn’t have the same fantasy elements as does Witchmark, it touches on many of the same themes: trauma, healing, and trust, specifically within the context of PTSD following service in the war. Both have a murder mystery element, and both allow for the two romantic leads to come together as they work as a team both to heal old wounds and find the murderer. Witchmark, however, takes this all a step further by introducing stakes that affect not only the immediate characters, but also the world as a whole. The introduction of magic and prejudice against non-aristocracy magic users adds in a new level of politicking and intrigue.

Miles is the son of a politically connected mage who sits atop the secret magical hierarchy that keeps Aeland stable and functioning, but he is reluctant to “do his duty” to the family and take his place as a Secondary to his sister. In Aeland, Secondaries are mages who have less obvious talent despite having a large pool of innate magic; thus, they are magically bound as glorified thralls to their Primary mage. Witches, low-class mages, are “known” to go mad and are sent to insane asylums in the countryside. Given that Miles has shucked off his connections to his family name, he risks just that fate if anyone at his psychiatry practice discovers his magical aptitude. Although his family would protect him if he were found out, it would mean becoming his sister’s magical slave.

“I’ve attended hearings and read transcripts. Do you know the most common proof of a witch’s madness?”
“Specifically, a delusion that moves them to accuse others of being witches. They usually name people from the highest levels of society: Royal Knights.”

Thus, when a strange man comes to his hospital bearing a witch who claims he’s been murdered just before he passes away in Miles’ care… Miles is justifiably concerned that the man witnessed him attempting to perform magic to save the man’s life. Miles is expecting blackmail, demands for reparations, or, worse, for him to go straight to the authorities. Much to Miles’ surprise, Tristan does not threaten to turn him in. Instead, he reveals himself as a fellow witch and offers a bargain: if Miles will assist him in finding the murderer, then Tristan will teach Miles as much about magic as he’s able up until the winter solstice.

“No one has ever used it,” Tristan said. “You’re my first guest.”
“Thank you for letting me stay.”
He held the shirt out. “You could stay here, you know. Until I have to leave.”
“As your guest?”
“I can’t ask you to give up your work for learning magic and catching murderers. You’re a healer. You’d never do it.”
“You’re right.”
He stepped closer. “We need every minute you can spare, Miles. It’s a good solution.”
I took the folded shirt from his hands. “It’s sensible.”
He lived closer to the hospital. The room was comfortable. We’d spend our evenings in each other’s company in privacy. For the sake of learning, for the investigation.

Thus sets off both our plot and our romance. It would be hard not to root for this pair; Miles is a kind-hearted soul who really does deserve happiness, so it’s a joy to watch him accept that Tristan isn’t the cold-hearted fae he initially believes. Their interactions are heart-warming and generally adorable. My one complaint is that they don’t officially get together as a couple until the very end of the novel; I was hoping to have more of the “we’re a real couple and we support the heck out of each other” goodness that I most enjoy in my romance. Given that the sequel, Stormsong, follows Miles’ sister, Grace, I’m not anticipating that I’ll get that out of the sequel, either. C’est le vie, not all books will cater to me, I suppose.

Some of the overarching themes present in this book include mental health and personal agency. As Miles struggles with PTSD from his time in the war, Tristan must help support and understand the unique challenges he faces. Many small things trigger panic or upset, due to connections with his time in the service. Sometimes, these are small and only recall intrusive thoughts or sensory disruption. Other times, they can be quite severe. Grace often uses both his coping mechanisms and her knowledge of his past against him as a method of removing his agency. Although Grace promises at the start of the novel that she will not bind him without his consent, she is ultimately caught up in the conspiring of their father, who forces the issue. Magic, it seems, doesn’t recognize that “consent” under duress is not true consent. Miles is caught between a rock and a hard place as he attempts to assert his own agency at the detriment of his sister.

She turned her attention on me, the cords of her throat straining to hold back the full gale of her emotion. “I need you, Miles. I mourned you. I couldn’t stop dreaming you were a ghost, and you were alive this whole time. When I needed you.”

“Me, or my obedience?”

“My brother. Our family. I know you never saw eye to eye with Father, but you have leverage now.”

Grace claims to want reform amongst the upper class mages. She fundamentally agrees with Miles that the treatment of Secondaries is abhorrent as it currently stands. However, she also firmly believes that the only way to change the system is from within it. She views Miles as her ticket to power, and isn’t above using him to take it. She’s very much a hypocrite; even as she forces Miles’ to play his role, she claims that she wants Secondaries to have choice and freedom.

As the various politics of the characters begin to collide, one of my favorite scenes in instigated: the bicycle chase! Given that cars aren’t yet common during the time period, bicycles are the primary mode of transportation for most people in Aeland. Carriages exist, of course, but they’re slow in comparison and horses are expensive to care for. So, when Miles happens to be carrying some documents relevant to the murder and notices he’s been followed… cue the chase.

He turned right. Me, then. In spite of it all, I grinned. If he wanted me, he’d have to catch me. I cut across drafts and drove into the intersection before twisting my bike in a hard turn, straight up a short, steep hill. Climb that, blackguard. Let’s see how you do. I stood on my pedals and muscled it out, but he was in better shape than I supposed and soon I was speeding along a street heavy with foot traffic crisscrossing from shop to shop in pursuit of the day’s errands. I rang my bell, shouted warnings, and dodged alarmed customers who shook their fists at me, then squawked in outrage when my pursuer came flying after.

The sequel to Witchmark, titled Stormsong, will be released on February 11th, 2020. I was fortunate enough to be offered an advance copy for review, so keep on the look out! While Grace was one of my least favorite characters in Witchmark due to her horrific treatment of Miles, I’m incredibly curious about where C. L. Polk will take her character and how she might find redemption after her awful behavior. I’m hoping to see revolution and a change of the old guard in Aeland’s government, though naturally I’ll have to read and find out.

Update: My review of Stormsong is now available!

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