While social class distinctions are commonly used in the fantasy genres– daring princesses, spoiled princes, naive farmboys, plucky orphans– the strict delineations of those classes are often glossed over. In a novel, the plucky orphan can fall in love with the daring princess and even marry her, if their love is real. But the reality of class stratification makes the meeting (and marrying) of high- and low-class characters as unlikely as meeting a unicorn during one’s commute.
In Canadian author C.L. Polk’s World Fantasy Award-winning debut fantasy novel, Witchmark, Miles Singer fled the strictures of his noble birth. Though he was born with mage gifts and into one of the Hundred Families, Miles did not have the treasured Storm-Singer power. Because his society views this as the only viable gift, with everything else seen as a mere magic trick, Miles was destined to be bound to his older sister Grace, to be used as a human battery and provide Grace with the energy necessary to help control the weather. Miles turned his back on that, ran away to join the army, changed his name, and became a doctor.
But even then he had to hide his gifts, for anyone outside the Hundred Families who displays magical gifts are deemed to be witches and are sent to asylums before they’re driven mad by magic. As a veteran and doctor in a cash-strapped veterans’ hospital, Miles has to be careful how he uses his healing gifts, even as those gifts cry out to be used. But when a dying man and a handsome stranger arrive in Miles’s hospital on the same day, both asking for his help, Miles discovers that his gifts might not be as secret as he thought and that the past he left behind is catching up to him.
“When I crossed the intersection of East 32nd and Magpie Road, the pavement was utterly dry. My near discovery and the overflowing feeling of Nick’s power made me sick. I’d only escaped because I was beneath their notice. I only survived because I was supposed to be dead.”
The appearance of the dying man and the handsome stranger are not coincidental. The dying man begs Miles to investigate his murder, and the stranger, Mr. Hunter, decides he is going to aid Miles in this investigation. He is looking for answers of his own, after all, and it seems like this young doctor may be on to something.
Miles is reluctant at first. He’s under great stress at work. The recent war is over, and thousands of traumatized veterans are coming home. A strange infection is turning some of those veterans against their families. Even as he sees signs of this infection in his own patients, Miles must figure out which of them are well enough to go home so he can make room for incoming patients.
Though Witchmark is a debut novel, Polk easily handles the many narrative threads, seamlessly weaving them together so the twists and turns of the plot feel completely natural, whether in the context of the world of Kingston, or as they relate to the real world.
It is the mark of a good book if its themes relate back to the real world without sounding preachy. It is the mark of a great book if those themes make the reader stop and question their own assumptions about the world without breaking the spell of its own narrative. Witchmark asks a lot of its characters and forces them to look at the nature of their own society and its flaws. It also asks a lot of its readers, for though Kingston is an imaginary and magical city, its problems are not so very different from our own. Miles has to take a hard look at himself, his family, and his society and in so doing he discovers that his assumptions about each of those things could be terribly wrong. Only the most oblivious reader would fail to see Miles’s reflections and fail to reflect on their own views of society.
That’s not to say that Witchmark is a dull, didactic social commentary. Though it is a debut novel, Witchmark is a brilliant gem of a book, filled with expert world-building, charismatic characters, mystery, and bicycle chases. If C.L. Polk represents the future of fantasy, we are in good hands indeed.