Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Book Club 1 - Witch King by Martha Wells

Jessica started a book group and our first read - roughly quarterly at the moment given we're all doing other things and reading other things - is Martha Wells' Witch King [Rising World Book 1, although there's no book 2 yet and it's pretty self contained].  Thought I'd capture some thoughts/notes so they lock in a little before we meet in a few weeks.

I liked it. Although it's a tough start because of the complexity of her world.  Reminded me a bit of my experience at 18 reading Dune on the hillside overlooking Troy, NY, at RPI. Took me a while to get past feeling like I was reading a history and understand where the story was.

I don't know that I'd read book 2 if it ever comes out, but as a standalone it was interesting.  It's in the same vein as a lot of fantasy world-building lit I read lately, like Sanderson's Stormlit series, which I took a break from after book 2 to read this, each of those being 1000+ pages.  It's an interesting comparison to Sanderson's Stormlit [so far] because in his books, the main character gets an overview of the world via the storm spren and finds that humans [and otherwise] everywhere are endemically and always at war.  Maybe that changes by page 5000, but in the first 2000 pages it's a brutal world. In Martha Wells' world people across cultures are trying to find common ground and rebuild.  The world before the baddies show up to settle/colonize and use them as resources is one where there isn't much war, just negotiated skirmishes.  And the world after throwing off the colonizers is one of  [almost] everyone working together to make a better world, although the warning that one always has to be on guard lest things backslide, potentially in a similar but different from, and particularly from those who learned from the colonizers or [unfortunately] admired things about them, is a strong thread.

And that colonizers thread....VERY Babel [RF Kuang].  I think the parallels are tight, although Babel is during colonization and trying to get to a post colonial world and how to balance the good and the bad, and Witch King is about a post-colonial world that's been decimated and is on edge because much like Lord of the Rings, the baddies aren't necessarily gone. That looming threat of re/colonization is something I suspect is very real for a large part of the world.

The idea of the power wells is interesting in Witch King.  They're powered by various things. One even seems to be powered by a people's own belief in their innate superiority [definitely a statement there].  But the most important is the colonizers' ability to create magic powered by pain.  That means in the context of colonizing everyone is a resource.  Except for Kai, the main character, who by taking on the mantle of that power [and eventually giving it up, which is probably the primary 'lesson'], powers it by his own pain instead of the pain of others.  Erik said the 'flip' of what's expected is a big part of the book.  I don't think that's true.  The parallels to Nazi sympathizers  / accommodators that seem angelic...no one is fooled.  Ever.  They don't trust them even after the fall of the colonizers. People with power aren't necessarily to be trusted. Those who walk in each others' shoes, including literally, are. And the assertion that colonizing is powered by the pain of others, and the way past it is to use your own pain within the context of their own structures to break those structures....that seems extremely straight forward.  I think it's also fairly consistent through most of the book that the way to thrive is to create family where you can and that finding that family in unlikely places by breaking old hatreds creates something better.  I compared it to the Fast and Furious series for Erik, which I don't think he can relate to and which is a bit of joke...but Dom always claims the only thing that matters is family, and his family is made by accumulation of former enemies, real family, friends, and more.  I don't think Martha Wells would be keen to hear, "Hey, you wrote the fantasy version of Fast and Furious with power wells instead of cars and Kai instead of Dom", but I don't think it's an unreasonable comparison.

There's a bit of a D and D aspect in the various characters and their skills.  The ability to repurpose a spell to make people choke on flowers comes to mind.  Or the fiddling with magic to get unexpected results to get out of a bad situation, like the flooding.  Or the one character who sort of knits everything together while the other characters run a little slipshod at personal goals.  But I'd posit that it's a very interesting juxtaposition to show characters in what seems like a traditional met-by-accident D and D party with complementary skills to solve a problem, but realize that they're much more than that to each other.  The characters are constructed family regardless of origin, mistakes, family of origin [or culture], past.  Where in another book you might wonder "why did that character do that thing for that other character" and you expect the logical shoe to drop, in Witch King it's because they're family.  It's something they'd do for their own family, so they do it for their constructed family.  The other shoe never drops.

So Kai leverages so much of what he's learned to ensure the future - in terms of big politics for the Rising World - looks like the families he's had and constructed.  And lost. 

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