Witch King is the new standalone dark fantasy from acclaimed Murderbot author Martha Wells. Witch King marks her much-anticipated return to fantasy after completing her Books of the Raksura series.
Kai, the eponymous Witch King, is a powerful demon with a necromancy-type magic enabling him to occupy the bodies of deceased mortals. As the novel opens, Kai slowly regains consciousness to find that his mortal body has been murdered and his spirit is imprisoned in some sort of water cage:
“Waking was floating to the surface of a soft world of water, not what Kai had expected. Reaching out in that darkness, he found a cold, black sea ebbing and flowing, dropping away like a tide rolling out. Something was wrong with his body, everything was impossibly distant.”
Witch King alternates between two timelines. In the present day, Kai tries to piece together the puzzle of who betrayed him. The present-day timeline is interspersed with chapters from the past, showing a more powerful Kai imposing his will on the world. Clues from the past timeline help to inform the reader about the present-day narrative.
Kai is a fascinating character who exhibits a wry sense of humor, making Witch King fun to read in places, such as in the following exchange:
“I didn’t know you were a…demon.”
“You idiot. I’m the demon.”
Despite these humorous moments, most of Witch King is a dry read that fails to establish much meaningful connection to the world or characters. Although Kai exhibits sparks of charisma, the other characters mostly fall flat.
Martha Wells’s writing is solid, but Witch King suffers from slow pacing and a dense, disengaging style that makes the book a struggle to read. As a result, I never felt fully invested in the story or characters.
There are hints of great worldbuilding in Witch King, but unfortunately it is never fully developed in a satisfying way. Martha Wells drops the reader into the world at the beginning of the story, but her approach generates more questions than answers. Overall, the worldbuilding feels surprisingly shallow, and Witch King proves to be an unnecessarily challenging read where the payoff is not commensurate with the effort involved.
Despite its intriguing premise and flashes of sardonic humor, Witch King fails to deliver a story with enough depth or emotional connection for me to care as a reader. Grimdark readers may want to skip this one and read some of the author’s back catalog instead.