Pride reads: “Witchmark” by CL Polk
Another year, another Pride Reads challenge! I challenged myself a few years ago after a Book Con panel on LGBTQ+ books, when I realized I wasn’t reading enough. Every June, I try to only read books by queer authors or featuring queer protagonists. This year I started with witch mark by CL Polk.
witch mark takes place in a fictional world based on Edwardian England, where magic plays an important role in daily life, but it’s a secret thing reserved for the elites. Our main character, Miles Singer, has escaped his doomed, privileged life where he’d be expected to act like a battery, fueling his more powerful sister. Instead, Miles joined the army and went to war as a doctor, using his gift of healing. Returning from the war, he hides out in a veterans hospital, trying to help returning soldiers who begin to return home afflicted with a mysterious compulsion.
I really appreciated witch mark. I’m a sucker for a good romance, but the focus of this story is on mystery, and I love a good mystery too. (I mean, romance is still pretty good.) What happens to soldiers? What is the connection with Miles’ family? Who is this charming and handsome man who has just entered Miles’ life and where can I get one for myself?
Polk has created a fantasy alternate world where magic is both important and ignored. Classism is at the core of Aeland’s magical system, where there is no difference between a “witch” and a “mage” except the number of zeros in their bank account. Mages are landed, titled and revered, tasked with calming the chaotic climate of the land. While witches are poor, unconnected and treated like ticking time bombs, paraded through wacky trials and sent back to asylums. The double standard is stunning, but utterly believable. “Rules for you and not for me” isn’t just something that exists in fiction.
But even among the mages, there is a social division. Miles is considered a “secondary”, someone with a magical talent that is not considered useful. In Aeland, only mages who can control the weather matter, and anyone else is used for their power. Miles fled rather than be bound to his sister, Grace, and forced into her servitude. This adds a whole other layer to elitism; Miles can heal serious injuries, has literally saved lives, but it’s not considered important and he had to flee so he could use the gifts he was born with.
I really admire Miles’ determination throughout the book. He grew up wealthy and voluntarily gave up all the trappings and comforts of life among the elite. Although it’s never discussed in detail, he does talk about his experiences during the war, and they were extremely traumatic. He is adamant about using his talents to heal people. His devotion to his patients and strong moral compass make him a likeable character that you can’t help but cheer on.
In this world, it seems that homosexuality is accepted only in very specific circumstances. When Miles finds himself drawn to Tristan, the handsome stranger who brought a murder victim to Miles’ hospital, he laments that he is past the age where “that kind” of behavior would be permitted. Apparently it’s okay to be gay, but only until it’s time to settle down and get married. At least that’s true for Miles, who is supposed to be negotiating an “advantageous” match – for both political and magical power. It doesn’t really come off, but everyone’s attitude towards Miles and Tristan’s relationship leads me to believe that if Miles was poor (or non-magical), no one would care.
As usual with me, I didn’t realize it was part of a series when I picked it up! (If you’ve been reading my reviews for more than a few months, you’ll know this is happening to me a lot.) witch mark doesn’t end in a cliffhanger per se, but it’s very clear throughout the novel that there’s no way it could be contained in a single book. As Miles and Tristan investigate what is happening to the soldiers, they discover a dark secret at the very heart of Aeland that threatens everyone. Miles also learns that much of what he “knows” to be true is, in fact, lies. So, you know, just your standard daily mystery.
Because the emphasis is on the mystery, the romance takes a back seat. Miles and Tristan are clearly drawn to each other, and I thought Polk did a good job navigating the balance between the two storylines. There’s a bit of a jump at the end that turns the relationship from “slow burn with a bit of nostalgia” to “wow, that’s fast, you know you’ve only known each other a week”, which I found it a bit hard to believe. I just found it a bit abrupt and thought it would have been better to wait for the next book in the series.
witch mark is an entertaining and engaging read that immerses you in a world so similar to ours and yet very unknown. It drags you into a mystery that you can’t help but want to piece together and embark on a romance because these two characters literally can’t hold hands with each other. And while it doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending, you can’t help but feel hopeful for the future of these characters, even if the outlook isn’t so good.
witch mark by CL Polk is published by Tor.com and is currently available wherever books are sold.
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Author: Jamie Sugah
Jamie holds a BA in English with a major in creative writing from The Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, available on Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York with her ninja vampire demon cat. She covers TV, books, movies, cartoons and conventions in the New York area.
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