Martha Wells, best known for her Murderbot series, turns back to fantasy for her new novel Witch King. In this book she builds a complex world that is slowly rebuilding itself after a violent takeover and revolution in which many divisions remain. All of this detail and backstory is told through the eyes of a singular, fascinating character.
Kai is a demon. This means he can inhabit bodies of others and while he does so those bodies do not age and cannot be killed. But when the book opens Kai is in trouble. He and his friend (and witch) Kiezi have been captured and find that they have been imprisoned for an unspecified time. They manage to escape, Kai in a new body, and the two start to search for Kiezi’s partner Tahlen who is also missing. In undertaking this quest the two will uncover various plots and conspiracies to undermine a fragile coalition that has kept order since the overthrow of the Hierarchs, a group that had violently taken over the world and cut demons off from their underworld selves. As this story plays out, Kai also recalls the series of events that led to that overthrow and the forging of new alliances.
If that sounds like more than enough world building there is plenty more, including the magic rules for demons, witches and other supernatural beings, a multitude of different tribes and factions within those tribes, and a conspiracy that only really begins to make sense when much of the backstory has been related. The need to get across all of this detail is a problem. The complexity and an initial lack of understanding of this world makes the stakes of the quest, and the threats to it, fairly abstract which in turn drains it of much tension.
There are so many different places and rules and peoples that it is hard to keep straight, or more importantly to care. Some authors successfully manage to bring readers along into complex and rule-filled worlds, Wells struggles in Witch King. Even the title of the book gives no clues and ultimately makes no sense given Kai is not only not a witch (he is a demon and there are other characters called witches) but not really a king either (he gets some authority but is never called a King and many of his fellow demons do not follow him). So there is never even a “Witch King” to whom the title can relate, which is confusing in itself.
Kai himself is an interesting character but as mentioned, it takes a long time to understand as a reader why we should care about what he is doing. There is a kind of found family narrative but again, the story of that group coming together comes too late to make the earlier action seem important.
And the whole endeavour ends with a bit of whimper, making the whole story feel like scene setting and backstory for something potentially better to come. That is, Witch King ultimately feels like a 400-odd page introduction to some characters and a world so that readers know why we should care about them next time. But some readers may be too disaffected to want to return.