Witchmark by C.L. Polk
In an original world reminiscent of Edwardian England in the shadow of a World War, cabals of noble families use their unique magical gifts to control the fates of nations, while one young man seeks only to live a life of his own.
Magic marked Miles Singer for suffering the day he was born, doomed either to be enslaved to his family’s interest or to be committed to a witches’ asylum. He went to war to escape his destiny and came home a different man, but he couldn’t leave his past behind. The war between Aeland and Laneer leaves men changed, strangers to their friends and family, but even after faking his own death and reinventing himself as a doctor at a cash-strapped veterans’ hospital, Miles can’t hide what he truly is.
When a fatally poisoned patient exposes Miles’ healing gift and his witchmark, he must put his anonymity and freedom at risk to investigate his patient’s murder. To find the truth he’ll need to rely on the family he despises, and on the kindness of the most gorgeous man he’s ever seen.
What a cool book! It’s fun, different, romantic, and fast-paced. Perfect for fans of Sorcerer to the Crown, A Natural History of Dragons, A Darker Shade of Magic, or Soulless.
What these books all have in common, of course, is that they’re fantasies in alternate versions of historic England. Witchmark takes place in approximately Edwardian London, about the same time as Mary Poppins. It’s a unique setting, one that I don’t read as much about, and I really enjoyed elements like bicycle traffic jams and grocery store delivery boys. But of course Aeland isn’t England, and some of the distinctions (renaming days of the week, for example) felt unnecessary to me and were sometimes distracting. But do I never NOT complain of that in these sorts of books? Maybe it’s just a personality thing.
The other thing I love about near-England fantasies is seeing how magic works and how it makes the world different. In this case most of the mages use their magic to give Aeland warm, balmy weather year-round and to eliminate storms. Otherwise the country would be wiped clean off the map. It resulted in a political structure that favored those with a certain kind of magic, and all non-weather magic is disdained as mere “tricks”. Loved that! So intereting!
But don’t be deceived. This book is really about class and slavery. It’s about how the ruling-class invents lies about another group to create prejudice that allows them to use that group for their own gains. It’s about the importance of consent. It’s about how a gilded cage is still slavery if the person isn’t given a choice. It’s about valuing those who are different. It’s about not having to hide who you really are in order to assimilate.
But it does all of that in a light, fun way. Somehow.
Honestly, this book is almost written as a mystery novel. And while it’s not even Sherlock adjacent, Miles seemed like the sort of fellow who maybe read a lot of Holmes. It’s fun, moves along at a reasonable clip, and keeps the reader guessing.
Did I mention there’s a romance? So sweet! The writing style is a bit distanced, appropriately proper for an Edwardian time period, which keeps the romance from being too swoony. As a result it felt a bit … abrupt at first. But once the gentlemen were alone together and the sparks started flying I was sold!
There were only two things that kept this from being a five-star book for me. The first was the information overload at the beginning. Polk just throws you in, and there’s a lot going on. Worldbuilding, several plot arcs, lots of characters, magic. I was definitely a bit overwhelmed for the first 50 pages. Which I don’t mind in fantasy, honestly, but this time I just wasn’t as crazy about it. The second was Miles’s sister. She’s a major player and it drove me BONKERS how naive she was. Considering she’s supposedly super sharp and ambitious she sure never had any idea what was going on and was constantly screwing things up. Ugh. And so prejudiced!!! You’re not supposed to like her, but I just couldn’t move past it.
Can’t recommend this book highly enough for fantasy fans, especially for those who, like me, enjoy a good alternate history. Or … almost alternate … Whatever.