As fans of “Downton Abbey” can attest, there will always be an appetite for stories of family drama and forbidden love set in the bucolic, modestly glittering England that was. Cue Witchmark by C.L. Polk, a startlingly beautiful fantasy debut that is both magical conspiracy thriller and supernatural love story. But Polk weaponizes their quasi-Edwardian setting: An ornate family home’s staid beauty hides horrifying abuse. A bicycle chase through quaint, narrow city streets is the opening salvo in a battle that will become increasingly macabre. There is something wrong with this world at its core, and all its beauty and decorum serve only as distraction, camouflage or lure for the Anglophilic reader.
After a vicious, victorious campaign to conquer the country of Laneer, soldiers are returning home to Aeland, a small yet powerful island nation and Polk’s alternate vision of England. The mild weather enjoyed by the country’s inhabitants is secretly the work of a hundred mages called Storm-Singers, who together cast elaborate spells to control the weather. The Storm-Singers come from an upper class that calls itself the Invisibles, since they hide their powers from the rest of the country. Not every member of this elite, however, has weather-related abilities. The ones who don’t, no matter the utility of their powers, are bound to the more powerful Storm-Singers, and essentially used as human batteries.
Dr. Miles Singer escaped such a fate by running away from his family and joining the army, secretly using his healing powers to help wounded and traumatized soldiers. But when he discovers a mysterious mental ailment is infecting veterans, and possibly causing them to commit violent acts, he must balance his own self-preservation against the deadly consequences of staying silent. It’s not hard to draw parallels between this tension and Miles’ identity as a gay man, which he must also hide, and Polk depicts his calculations with heartbreaking restraint. Miles doesn’t have the time or space to truly feel how unjust his situation is, which only drives home to the reader how unfairly constrained his existence has become.
Polk’s reticence serves them well in Witchmark’s central love story, which adds another layer of supernatural intrigue. When a handsome, unfailingly kind man named Tristan Hunter starts asking the same questions about the returning veterans, Miles doesn’t know what to make of him. He’s too open to be an agent of Miles’ powerful family, and too seemingly naïve to be a fellow fugitive Invisible. The reason Tristan gives Miles for his lack of knowledge initially sounds insane—he’s not a human being, and he’s not from this world at all. But Polk’s prose is never more beautiful or soothing when describing Tristan and his surroundings, reaching du Maurier-esque gauzy ease, and soon the reader is convinced as well as Miles that the mysterious man is something otherworldly.
The attraction between the two of them unfolds haltingly, a port of calm established over cups of tea and excellent meals, as their investigation reaches further and further into the dark imperialist heart of Aeland. But it is a center that will not hold, and both know that. The increasing darkness of Witchmark is beautifully modulated by Polk, who slowly dims the initial vibrancy of their book, funneling the reader closer to a chilling, utterly fantastic final reveal.