After spending several years as one of the reigning queens of science fiction, Martha Wells plunges into a high fantasy world of empires and body-hopping demons with Witch King. Centuries ago, someone killed the powerful demon Kai-Enna and trapped his consciousness in a magical prison. When a foolish mage tries to take his powers, Kai breaks out of his prison, takes over the mage’s body and sets out to get his revenge and see what has become of the world in his absence.
For the past few years, you’ve been working in the realm of sci-fi, giving readers the glorious Murderbot Diaries. What drew you back to fantasy, and especially fantasy of this scale?
I’ve always loved fantasy, and there have been a large number of original, innovative fantasy novels coming out in the last several years. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I did a lot of reading and also started to watch a lot of international TV shows, such as Chinese and Korean fantasy dramas. This was all a big inspiration, and I started to play with fantasy ideas again. I had writer’s block for the first six months or so of the pandemic, and I realized I needed a change to shake me out of it, so I decided to run with some of those ideas. Witch King is my pandemic book, basically.
Your take on demons is really unique. What drew you to telling a story with a demon as a main character, and why did you set them up as these body borrowers?
That was really the idea that first sparked the book. I wanted to write a non-human character again, in a fantasy context, someone who would be an outsider to the human cultures they interact with but who would be functionally immortal, and be able to observe and participate in a long swath of history. I wanted the demons to have powers that were potentially terrible to humans, and the idea of being able to take over a dead or living body worked with the idea of how the Saredi and the demons became allies through Kai’s grandmother. The first scene was something I had in mind for a long time but just never had a story to go with it.
The idea of the Saredi bargain—having a demon carry out the legacy of a dead human by taking over their body—is really beautiful. Can you talk a little about the evolution of this idea?
I wanted the Saredi clans and the demons to be closely related, to be old enemies who had come to an agreement that evolved into an almost symbiotic relationship. I also wanted that relationship to seem normal to the Saredi (and the reader) but strange and terrible to an outsider who had only heard rumors about it. I wanted it to be very much open to misinterpretation.
Witch King shows a revolution in flashbacks, but the main thrust of the story is set generations later. Did you always have these two storylines in mind, or did one inspire the other?
I don’t really think of it as a revolution; the characters are repelling a colonial invasion. Originally the flashbacks weren’t going to be as prominent, but once I started, I realized the story of meeting Bashasa and the escape and destruction of the Summer Halls was really important to understanding what was happening to Kai in the book’s present day. It was also a lot of fun to write.
Kai’s past relationships—with the members of the Saredi tribe; with Bashasa; and with Tahren, Ziede and Dahin—are important but also very clearly only seasons within a very long life. Were there any other significant moments or people from his past that ended up on the cutting room floor but that you wish you’d found a place for?
Not really. I did want to write more about Ziede and Tahren and Kai’s present-day family, how it evolved, and show the reader more of those characters, but it didn’t fit into the storyline. Hopefully I can have room for that in a future book.
Questions about the legacy of extractive colonization and imperialism are an undercurrent in your recent works. The Murderbot Diaries critique colonization, whereas Witch King goes one step further and asks us to think about the process of decolonization. What interests you about this topic, and why do you think you keep returning to it in your fiction?
I think the Murderbot Diaries focus more on corporate greed and control over the economy than colonization. But I think colonization is something I keep coming back to because I live in the United States; we’re surrounded by its legacies. The present is an overlay of the past, and all those conflicts and injustices are still very visible in everyday life.
You are very intentional when it comes to people’s clothing and the nuances of fashion. Where did the inspiration for the clothes in Witch King come from?
I looked at a lot of historical sources, especially ancient South Asia, ancient Egypt and ancient Syria, as well as fantasy versions of historical sources. I wanted the different cultures to have their own styles but also reflect how they had been trading and borrowing from one another for a long period of their history.
Is there a particular ensemble that’s a favorite of yours?
My favorite is probably the Arike coat; I’d really like to have one in real life.
How has the world of SFF changed since you published your first book?
It’s changed a lot. I think the publishing world has finally realized that diverse voices, international voices and different cultural or original ways of telling stories are what the reading audience wants. SF and fantasy don’t have to stay within narrow boundaries or conform to past norms to find readers. The books and authors showing up on the award lists every year are proof of that.
Photo of Martha Wells by Lisa Blaschke.