C. L. Polk’s 2017 Witchmark is the first volume in their Kingston Cycle.
Having survived a lamentable childhood and a bloody war, Doctor Singer would like to put his past behind him and focus on healing people. His good Samaritan instincts betray him when he tries to assist Nick Elliott. The dying journalist refers to the doctor as “starred one” in the hearing of Tristan Hunter. Elliott might as well have called Singer a witch.
If Hunter were to report Singer to the authorities, it would be disastrous for the doctor. The nation of Aeland has a firm policy where witches are concerned: dispatch them to asylums as soon as they are discovered. But Hunter, a foreigner, isn’t interested in exposing Singer. Hunter simply wants the doctor’s help in learning who murdered Elliott — and why.
Singer is certain that Elliott was poisoned. Ordinarily he would report Elliot’s death to the authorities as a homicide. But he can’t, because someone has removed all evidence of the murder. Elliott’s body has been removed from the morgue before it can be autopsied, sent off for cremation. His clothing has also been destroyed. Someone in authority wants the murder hidden.
Sans autopsy, Singer cannot require a formal investigation. If there’s to be any investigation, Hunter and Singer will have to do it themselves. Singer brings to the quest all the investigative training of a doctor. Hunter may be very aptly named, because the outlander proves curiously determined to pursue the mystery.
Readers eventually learn that Hunter isn’t human; he’s a being of myth and legend, an elf-like Amaranthine. Creatures of aethereal beauty, they are rarely encountered in Singer’s world. He has come to Aeland to follow up on some matter that concerns the Amaranthines. What that is he will not explain to Singer. What Hunter can do, however, is tutor the unschooled Singer in the use of his magical talents.
The quest brings Singer and Hunter to the attention of the authorities, at which point we learn that Aeland is indeed a nasty place.
I should perhaps add that Hunter and Singer fall in love. It’s a charming cross-species homosexual romance, which will doubtless please many readers. It would not please the authorities of Aeland, were this also to come to their attention. Just as Aeland disapproves of witches, it disapproves of same sex partnerships. It’s even worse that Singer is upper-class. In his class, relationships that don’t lend themselves to strategic dynastic marriages are quite quite beyond the pale.
Another book in this series, Stormsong, has recently been published. I wanted to review it, but … as I had not read Witchmark, it would have been difficult to write a spoiler-free review without knowing what the spoilers might be. Now, it’s often the case that this sort of overthinking can expand projects from one-offs to lengthy efforts, efforts sometimes so large as to cause me to ask myself “why even start?” I persevered and I am glad that I did so. I enjoyed Witchmark and am looking forward to reading and reviewing Stormsong.
Witchmark is among other things a mystery. It’s a mystery that turns on penetrating and exposing evil at high governmental levels. Not that the government would see their actions as evil. It’s always easy for those in power to convince themselves that what they are doing is for the greater good and just incidentally serves the best interests of the powers that be. Any costs born by the lower orders are repaid by the benefits conferred … in most cases on the upper classes, but that’s the way things must work. Of course it’s always a surprise when the lower orders object and lash out.
This is mystery noir, in the tradition of Hammett, Chandler, Paretsky, and Mosley. Authors like Christie or Sayers trusted the authorities; writers of mystery noir don’t.
Polk demonstrates a nice hand with character and prose, as well as writing a cracking mystery. This worries me. What happens if they notice that the market for mysteries is much larger than the market for SFF? Will they stop writing SFF and switch to mysteries? Perhaps you might want to buy a book or two to encourage the author in right-writing.