Review: Witch King by Martha WellsWitch King by Martha Wells
Published by Tor Publishing Group on May 30, 2023
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 432
Format: Audiobook
Source: Received from publisher

From the breakout SFF superstar author of Murderbot comes a remarkable 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.

WITCH KING is Martha Wells’s first new fantasy in over a decade, drawing together her signature ability to create characters we adore and identify with, alongside breathtaking action and adventure, and the wit and charm we’ve come to expect from one of the leading writers of her generation.

At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.

Martha Wells’ latest fantasy offering suffers from comparison to her wildly popular Murderbot Diaries novellas. If you’re looking for more of the dry wit and solid characterization that Wells’ is known for, you may be disappointed by Witch King. Packed with great ideas and featuring an interesting world, this standalone fantasy novel should’ve been a slam-dunk, but it fell short for me.

Witch King introduces the demon prince Kaiisteron – call him Kai – an infamous demon known as the Witch King. Feared and respected in equal measure, demons can possess mortal bodies and drain life from living things. Powerful even by demon standards, Kai’s latest adventure starts when he wakes from a long imprisonment, disoriented and separated from his most recent body. His murdered body, now resting in its watery grave. Severely weakened and unable to recall the events leading to his imprisonment, Kai knows he’s been betrayed – but why? And by whom?

I absolutely loved the setup of this story. Solving your own murder while occupying a new and unfamiliar body? Raging against your oppressors and blasting them into the netherworld with magic? Sign me up! The story’s conceit is compelling, but it never seemed to find its feet. Told in two timelines, the present focuses on solving “Kai’s” murder and the past timeline explains Kai’s rise to power and how he became the Witch King. Tons of characters are introduced in both timelines, most of them with reason enough to want Kai dead. 

Buzzy marketing led me to expect an action adventure, but this is really a slow-paced story about the life of a famous fantastical figure.

Unfortunately, the overabundance of characters bogged down the narrative in both timelines. The result? A poorly paced story packed with characters I didn’t really care about.  I loved Zeide, Kai’s badass best friend and guard, but even Kai himself couldn’t capture my attention for long. He holds a lot back from the reader in his narration, so is it any wonder I felt distant from him? From a characterization and world-building perspective, I do appreciate Witch King’s normalization of queerness in many forms. There isn’t really a romance, although tender feelings are hinted at between Kai and other men in both the past and present timelines. Zeide is also married to another woman, Tahren, and no one bats an eye. 

This is a classic example of marketing doing more harm than good. All the buzzy things I heard about Witch King made me expect an action-packed adventure, when in reality it’s a slower-paced story about a famous fantastical figure. Readers going in with those expectations are sure to enjoy the story more than I did. 

Audiobook lovers should take note: Eric Mok narrates and he delivers a solid performance. Mok’s voice is mellow and pleasant, and I thought his “proper” sounding English accent fit Kai’s somewhat uptight personality quite well. I’d happily listen to another book narrated by him!