Throwback Thursday: The Kingston Cycle

Book cover: Witchmark - CL PolkThe long, devastating war is over. Kingston, victorious, can begin to heal. But when veterans begin murdering their families and a journalist dies in his arms, Doctor Miles Singer is drawn into a conspiracy that could force him to expose his own secrets. The battle for Kingston’s soul has only just begun…

Witchmark and its two sequels are books that were on my radar without ever making my reading list until they were nominated for Best Series in this year’s Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards. Consequently, I had the delight of devouring all three in close proximity.

I fell in love with Witchmark from the off. Polk has an assured prose style that drew me in, and they establish relationships and the keystones of their worldbuilding with a remarkably light touch. I was soon reflecting that it felt like the fastest and most organic set up I had read for a while, reminiscent of the deftness with which Melissa Caruso sets out her stall in The Tethered Mage albeit it with a very different tone and setting. Much like The Tethered Mage, having established the basics, Polk sets about demolishing the foundations of their world.

The Kingston Cycle presents a gloriously early twentieth century fantasy world. Kingston is a city of glittering aristocrats and an aspiring merchant class, a triumphant economy with a clean power grid bringing light and heat to every home and peletons of suited workers cycling to their workplaces. Scratch the surface, and the gilt smears. Kingston is a city of repressive social inequality and dangerous working conditions, where the Royal Knights are secretly weather mages controlling the climate but who lock up lower-class witches because they’re mad. And then there’s the mysterious otherworldly Amaranthines, who aren’t used to mere mortals of any class resisting their decrees…

I do love a social fantasy, and while Witchmark is primarily a conspiracy drama it sets the stage for a society being confronted by the unpalatable truths underpinning its history and its current economic success. Climate change, structural inequality and irrational prejudices are woven into the fabric of the tale to become the engines driving the conflicts of Stormsong and Soulstar.

Each novel adopts a different narrator and provides a view into different levels of society – seemingly middle-class Miles, who joined the army to work his healing magic in secret, exposing a conspiracy that could rock society to its core; Grace, navigating the highest echelons of society and influencing the Crown to try and bring change; Robin, fighting for witch’s rights and democratic representation from the immigrant community of Riverside. Each novel has a central political plot that unfolds like clockwork, raising stakes as it peels back the world-building, with numerous supporting plots for texture and a queer romantic subplot for personal conflict (including rekindling a romance between an established middle-aged couple, my heart). The result is pure delight that stormed (sorry not sorry) to the finals of Best Series and nicked in just ahead of popular favourite The Expanse.

Part of the joy here is the economy with which Polk tells her story – this is a huge drama in three acts, but it trips along at a fine pace without ever feeling like it skimps on character or detail – but I was just as beguiled by the setting. Bring me more fantasies with ice skates and bicycles; where characters who are flawed but passionately idealistic, and who are given both reason and space to grow over the course of the narrative arc. It’s easy to love Miles as he is a pure cinnamon roll, so buttoned up (until he gets unbuttoned oh my), but I adored Grace against the odds – soaked in privilege, self-absorbed, initially incapable of challenging her assumptions about her world – because she tries, fails, and keeps trying. Fierce, uncompromising Robin is a different type of joy, and I thoroughly enjoyed her inner conflict over trying to balance personal priorities with her commitment to build a better world for the many not the few.

I found this series easy to pick up and hard to put down. For all its high drama – expect kidnapping, incarceration, murder plots and more – its tone and heart make for a cosy read that sits naturally next to the likes of The Goblin Emperor on my shelf. I know I’ll reach for it again when I need a book (or three books!) that will fill my heart and warm my soul in spite of its icebound setting.

I received a free copy from the publisher to consider for the Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards. This did not influence the content of my review.