Some fans of Martha Wells’ Murderbot series may not realize that long before she wrote of wormholes and space battles, Wells was already an established fantasy writer. The complex and thoughtful Witch King is her return to the genre, a product of a master world builder with a flair for creating sweeping stories and lush settings.
The demon prince Kai-Enna has been assassinated, his body imprisoned in a watery grave. His friend, the witch Ziede Daiayahah, has been put into an enchanted sleep nearby. Unfortunately for Kai’s assassins, however, demons are difficult to kill, and after Kai frees himself and Ziede, he is determined to uncover who was behind his attempted murder—and why they came after him in the first place.
To make matters more complicated, Ziede’s wife, Tahren Stargard, and Tahren’s brother, Dahin, have also gone missing. Tahren and Dahin are Blessed, a powerful race of beings that can often have magical powers and immortality. Tahren, one such Immortal Blessed, forsook her people’s alliance with the Hierarchs, an imperialist force that once almost conquered the world. Tahren is a key symbol for the continued cooperation among mortals, witches, demons and the Immortal Blessed; her disappearance could jeopardize the precarious peace established after the defeat of the Hierarchs. As Kai and his allies investigate, they are forced to revisit the wounds they incurred during the revolution, and they discover how their past deeds have impacted the present—and possibly the future—of their world.
Kai’s environment is brilliantly layered, not just full of the requisite political intrigue, well-choreographed battles and world-shattering magic that mark a good epic fantasy, but also stuffed with lore from multiple cultures. Within this framework, Wells asks readers to sit with something that is underrepresented in mainstream fantasy: the postcolonial period. Many fantasies feature or deconstruct colonialism, and while plenty of these stories depict revolutions to overthrow tyrannical regimes, they don’t often explore the instability and moral uncertainty of what comes next. The brilliance of Witch King is that it captures the feeling of this tentative peace with emotional depth but also has plenty of nail-biting moments of combat and dazzling magic, too.
While its memorable characters and clear stance against authoritarianism are similar, Witch King is no Murderbot. Its prose is more lyrical and complex, less full of punchy one-liners (though there are flashes of the sardonic humor that marks Wells’ other hallmark series). What the two do share, however, is a compelling story that understands humanity at its best and worst—despite being told from the perspective of a robot or a demon.