Review | Witchmark – C.L. Polk

About the Book

In an original world reminiscent of Edwardian England in the shadow of a World War, cabals of noble families use their unique magical gifts to control the fates of nations, while one young man seeks only to live a life of his own.

Magic marked Miles Singer for suffering the day he was born, doomed either to be enslaved to his family’s interest or to be committed to a witches’ asylum. He went to war to escape his destiny and came home a different man, but he couldn’t leave his past behind. The war between Aeland and Laneer leaves men changed, strangers to their friends and family, but even after faking his own death and reinventing himself as a doctor at a cash-strapped veterans’ hospital, Miles can’t hide what he truly is.

When a fatally poisoned patient exposes Miles’ healing gift and his witchmark, he must put his anonymity and freedom at risk to investigate his patient’s murder. To find the truth he’ll need to rely on the family he despises, and on the kindness of the most gorgeous man he’s ever seen.

318 pages (paperback)
Published on June 19, 2018
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You know, I’ve been in a bit of a weird place recently. I’ve wanted to read books that aren’t, maybe, quite as epic as epic fantasy. Honestly, I have been sort of into the Gaslamp scene, and books with a bit of romance or some softer edges. 

Just… different than my usual. 

Enter Witchmark.

Now, I went into this book knowing nothing more about it than there were whispers of LGBTQIA+ plotlines (huge, HUGE benefit in my book) and some Gaslamp-ish of worldbuilding. Okay, sign me up. I’m here for this. As an added benefit, it wasn’t 700 pages long, but just over 300, and my library had it.

What I found in this deceptively-sized novel was a whole lot of layers, details, text, and subtext, and reader, I loved it. 

Set in this secondary world, just after a brutal war, we are introduced with one Doctor Miles Singer. Miles is a veteran of the war, and, for reasons that become apparent, he’s living under an assumed ID and working in a veteran’s hospital. You see, in this world, people who are magic marked are basically either doomed to live as a mage’s… battery, might be the right word. Or, he’d be relegated to an asylum. He wants neither of these fates, so he returns from war a very different man (literally) and goes into hiding.

However, early on, everything changes. Miles finds himself steeped in mystery, and together, with a stranger, is ensconced in all sorts of espionage, sneaking around, detective work, and the like.

The plot, I will say, is perfection. Everything is paced right, and the characters have unique voices and personalities. They truly blaze, and Miles himself commands the book. He’s a great mixture of confident and quiet, and he even has flaws, which I enjoyed. In truth, he was just a wonderful character to follow because he was so profoundly, shockingly human.

However, it isn’t really the plot that thrilled me as much as the details. Under Polk’s deft hand, the world comes to life. Nothing is overlooked, and due to this, not only did I occasionally think, “Oh, hey, I never would have thought of this but wow, is it a cool detail…” I’d also marvel at just how much thought the author put into all of this. It’s one thing to read a book that’s just a damn good book. It’s another thing to read a book that’s just a damn good book, and holds some of the most realistic characters and world building I’ve come across.

Yes, there is romance, and yes, I loved it. The two men involved were fantastic, and while it did have notes of a meet-cute, the way it developed was natural and not forced. The way the characters came together was sweet, and I found myself fist pumping the sky so happy because yes, YES, this is how romance should be written. It was the perfect note to the story overall, and balanced some of the darker moments with light, and tension of a different sort. Seriously, I loved it.

Layers. My God, this book had so many layers.

There’s enough information about the wider world given in this book to make me hungry to explore it, and I’m eager to see if the next books in this series expands the borders of what we saw here at all. However, even if it doesn’t, I really enjoyed how Polk brought cultures together, and added subtle notes here and there about the wider world, other places, other cultures, and peoples. It made the book feel rather sprawling, while location-wise, it really wasn’t. It’s interesting how large a small focus can feel when details are carefully and purposefully woven into the narrative in this way. 

The magic system was spectacular, at once really intricate and well formed, but also with enough of a darker side to balance out all its potential. I love magic systems like this, that have so much upside, but just enough downside to make it a gamble. Miles spends so much of his time hiding who he is and what he’s capable of, that when he finally has an opportunity to explore his own capabilities, it’s really interesting to explore with him. However, there’s always just enough risk there to keep both Miles, and the reader, a bit uneasy.

As Miles becomes entangled in his family again, I enjoyed the deeper themes the author was playing with, about the often conflicting desires of familial obligation and personal autonomy, and often the emotional tribulations involved in being at the center of such a tug-of-war were well handed. This book is, quite honestly, steeped in empathy, not just with this particular point, but with literally everything. The author genuinely cares, and the reader can feel that on every page.

All in all, Witchmark blew my socks off. It was exactly what I was looking for, and exactly what I needed and wanted to read. Absolutely spectacular writing, superb characterization, brilliant romantic notes, and detailed worldbuilding that made the story so real it breathed both on and off the page. This wee book packs a powerful punch.

5/5 stars