C.L. Polk’s Witchmark
Words By Suzie Bartholomew
In her fantastic debut novel, Witchmark, C.L. Polk brings to life an England-inspired alternate reality, full of magic, intrigue, and even a bit of romance. Witchmark’s character-driven narrative relies on complex relationships to propel the plot forward and doesn’t allow stereotypes to guide who those characters are or how their relationships are formed. The novel tells the story of Miles Singer, a witch born into an influential family, who is condemned to either be a living battery for his sister or declared insane and committed to a witch’s asylum. Angry at his family for forcing him into this impossible situation, Miles chooses a third option by joining the army, and becoming a doctor.
Enter the mysterious Tristan Hunter, a man who brings a dying stranger to Miles’s hospital. The stranger, who seems to know Miles’s true identity, claims he was poisoned, but does not know by whom. Unable to save the stranger’s life, Miles is determined to figure out who killed the man. Tristan, on a mission of his own, pairs up with Miles to figure out the reason behind the strange man’s death.
Unfortunately, Miles’s past comes rushing back in a sudden reunion with his sister. She has the single-minded goal of bringing him back to the secretive world of powerful mages, which not only interrupts Miles’s plans of finding the killer, but also his growing romance with Tristan. Now Miles must work within the powerful families of his country to not only solve a murder, but possibly gain true freedom as well.
Witchmark is a character-driven story, which allows the plot to grow naturally from the relationships within and also intrigues the reader to invest in the characters’ lives. Miles Singer is a rather realistic character for a novel set in a fantasy world, but it is precisely this realism that has you rooting for Miles to succeed. The growing romance with Tristan is almost refreshingly unimportant, as it only helps to enhance the story rather than distract from it. That is not to say that romance is contrived or useless, far from it, but Witchmark weaves together various plot devices to create a story that feels wholly original.
One of this novel’s strengths is its absolute refusal to rely on tropes to define its characters or plot. There is romance between two men, yet the story focuses on how they are working together to solve a murder mystery rather than how one (or both) are surprised at falling in love with someone of the same sex. In fact, most of the characters’ reactions are based largely on the situation at hand. For instance, Miles’s sister, Grace, has to fight politically for her own goals, but is only questioned by what she brings to the table and not her gender.
Other than the characters, the world Polk has created is simply and solidly described. There isn’t any confusion as to the ground rules politically or domestically as Polk clarifies these facts as the narrative necessitates. Once a new concept is brought up, such as this society’s views on those with magical power or even how their cars work, Polk explains it immediately, which creates a fully immersive world. There are greater political issues, such as classism and elitism, threaded naturally into the plot which allows the world-building to be expansive and novel, yet still based in what readers might already see as familiar.
Overall, Witchmark is a book that is gloriously fun to read and hard to put down. Once you finish the novel, you’ll quickly find yourself wishing for more. With a writing style that is fluid and characters that are as unique as the story itself, Polk does an exemplary job of straddling the line between character and plot as she uses both aspects synergistically rather than forcing the novel to hinge upon one or the other. C.L. Polk has created a world that could easily be expanded upon, so hopefully we will see more from her in the future.