Stormsong is the sequel to Witchmark, the first installment in C. L. Polk’s alt-Edwardian Kingston Cycle. Witchmark won the World Fantasy Award in 2019 (I cheered). Stormsong is a rewarding follow-up to a terrific debut novel.
In Stormsong, Polk has not been content to rest on her laurels, or within her area of comfort. She’s perfectly willing to kick us out of our own, too, which she demonstrates by switching first-person narrators. No longer are we dealing directly with the idealistic young physician-witch, Miles Singer—née Hensley—whose perspective, dilemmas, and passions led us through the punishing high-stakes maze of Witchmark. Instead, the narrator of Stormsong is Miles’s far less idealistic, and more political, younger sister Grace, a character readers only tentatively accepted as one of Miles’s genuine allies by the end of the first novel. Grace is an accomplished manipulator and wheeler-dealer, the true heir of her and Miles’s amoral, powerful father, Lord Christopher Hensley, Chancellor of Aeland, Voice of the Invisibles. It’s her job to hold on to the power the Hensley family has amassed, both publicly and secretly (the Invisibles are a hereditary magical cabal that controls Aeland’s weather and steers its fate). And she has learned, very well, how to bend people to her designs by any means necessary.
In the first book, for instance, we saw Grace playing on Miles’s concern for the wellbeing of others, in order to persuade him to return to the family home he nearly died trying to escape:
“We’re nearly home.”
“You’ll be gone before Father wakes up.”
“[The coachman] has been up all night,” Grace said. “He can get to his bed all the sooner instead of making him drive all the way to [your flat.]” (Witchmark, p. 241)
See that? It doesn’t seem so awful at first. But then you remember that Miles is a selfless psychiatrist and magical healer who has real trouble taking care of himself when he’s worried about other people. As his handsome immortal suitor Tristan puts it:
“You use […] your own reserves … Do you always do it that way? Draw on your personal energy until there’s nothing left to give?”
“I guess I do,” I said.
“We’ll have to fix your technique,” Tristan said. (Witchmark, p. 157)
Miles has very few empathic boundaries, so of course he is worried about the coachman. Grace knows this. It’s an unfair, unscrupulous lever to use but she doesn’t hesitate for a moment, and the consequences—as it turns out—are terrible. This is our narrator now. How, then, are we all to get along?
More than a few readers of Stormsong will mourn the shift from Miles to Grace. To be honest I did too at first, mainly because I enjoyed Miles and Tristan’s flirtatious byplay so much in Witchmark. Their relationship smoldered and sparkled. It leavened the crushing difficulties, the tragedies, of a plot that culminated in the terrible realization, shared between Tristan, Grace, and Miles, that Aeland’s prosperity and comfort has literally been powered by the desecration of its own dead, and the suffering of its own disenfranchised citizens. Reengaging with the catastrophic timeline of C. L. Polk’s world felt chillier and lonelier without full access to Miles and Tristan’s romance, and in the absence of a narrative consciousness that seemed basically in the right. But then I started to mull it over and thought, how interesting: Grace is not going to be able to handle Aeland’s existential crisis by getting the reader to like her. No, she’s going to have to try to fix this mess just as she is: an off-putting, blinkered, wealthy, commanding young woman with a glitchy moral compass and a steep learning curve in front of her. That’s a big ask, affectively speaking, and I think it’s a principled and brave one on the author’s part. Stormsong looks societal expectations of female performative likeability straight in the eye and says, “Not now. I’m extremely busy.”
Grace, while commanding, is nearly fatally confused by the situation in which she finds herself. When Witchmark concludes, she and Tristan and Miles have torn apart the vile aether generation-system—dependent on the enslavement of non-noble witches—that has heated and illuminated Aeland’s homes, and supported its technologies of convenience, for the past forty years. By doing so they have plunged the country into a universal power-blackout in the dead of winter, and also possibly averted a terrible judgement on the country. Throughout the first book, Tristan’s nation, the glamorous, elf-like Amaranthines, had been pursuing an undercover investigation of Aeland’s rumored carceral and necromantic crimes. As Stormsong begins, we learn that Grace and Miles’s spontaneous participation in the dismantling of the aether network has convinced the Amaranthine Grand Duchess Aife that only some of Aeland’s political class is responsible for the atrocities involved in the network’s construction and operation. So Aife has, for the time being, suspended the reckoning and come to determine for herself how justice should be served. Now she and her court are temporarily resident in the country’s capital, Kingston—ostensibly as the guests of Aeland’s Queen Constantina and her heir, Prince Severin, but in fact as a hovering, gorgeous set of potential executioners.
That’s really only the start of Grace’s difficulties. With her father, Sir Christopher, and all of the most powerful Invisibles now in prison on account of their criminal involvement with the aether network, Grace must take over Sir Christopher’s role as Queen Constantina’s Chancellor, and defend the perhaps indefensible Crown to the patient, inscrutable Grand Duchess Aife. She must also deal with the fact that Prince Severin seems more than willing to undercut his mother in her hour of need, if this will hasten his succession; she must also wrangle the quarreling, decimated Invisibles into a functional unit that can still hope to blunt the worst of the hundred-year storms barreling down on a vulnerable, heatless Aeland; solve a diplomatically sensitive locked-room murder mystery; and try to come up with a non-evil PR approach that will cushion the revelation to Aeland’s populace that their elite have for a generation allowed innocent witches to be persecuted and packed off to asylums where their suffering was monetized by the aether-distribution company, Aeland Power and Light.
It’s a lot. On top of everything else, Grace also needs to … make new friends. Aaaargh, the worst! It’s not an area of strength for our protagonist. Polk shows Grace floundering: trying to deal with her own tin ear for non-aristocratic human feeling; awkwardly correcting her realpolitik instincts in real time, as required by the ethically determined demands and preferences of others. Brought up to believe that her family’s resources and connections could provide whatever was necessary to handle any difficulty, Dame Hensley now finds herself in a situation where scarcities and shortages of every imaginable necessary thing—time, political goodwill, political leverage, magic, health, emotional intelligence, knowledge—beset her all around. She is not enough, her immediate family is not enough. Can she convince the people she needs, people who have suffered the worst historical effects of the institutional and financial power she wields, to trust her in time? Let alone to love her?
I’m going to come back to the love angle. Let me begin with friendship. Here’s one of my favorite scenes in Stormsong,with the gruesome parts bracketed out. It takes place about midway through the book, in a morgue. (Polk’s characters spend a surprising amount of time in morgues; in this case the setting, and Grace’s reaction to it, indicates her lack of experience with the exacting matters of life-and-death in which she’s been called to intervene.) Grace is asking Miles’s friend, the formidable Robin Thorpe, to act as a go-between for her. She wants Robin to solicit weather-taming help from a clandestine network of Aelander witches, who have, by keeping their powers secret, escaped persecution and incarceration under the deceptively named Witchcraft Protection Act. Robin is a Black woman. Grace gives very little thought to her own racial coding throughout the book, which suggests she is probably white.
Grace begins her bid; Robin counters her at every point:
“I need to know something. Something of vital importance. There are witches in Riverside. They have the gift of being able to control the weather.”
Robin […] kept silent. Miles shifted in his chair.
I plunged onward. “Aeland needs them,” I said. “[…] We need all the power we can get.”
“And will these witches be your equal? Will they be invited to live behind the gates of the Western Point? Will they gain rich Cabinet positions, just like you?”
[…] I stood speechless, unable to come up with a response. “Aeland needs them. This is a crisis.”
“Centuries of persecution has been a crisis. Decades of incarceration has been a crisis. Now a storm you couldn’t handle pounded at the door, and you’re talking about a crisis.”
“You can’t deny the problem we face!”
“You seem to be denying our problem just fine […] Understand this,” Robin said. “I’m talking to you because I trust Miles. And Miles trusts you. But I’m not going to lead you to a single witch, no matter how badly you need them. Not when all you can give me are promises not to tell.” (p. 159)
This initially unyielding exchange is the beginning of an actual negotiation and, beyond that, something like—on Grace’s part—an aspirational relationship based on respect and liking. It is not a done deal by the end of the book—Robin Thorpe will probably always have some justifiable reservations about Grace Hensley. But at a key point in the plot, Grace pauses on the brink of a tricky personal and political decision to consider that, if she goes in one particular direction, she “[would] never be welcome in Robin’s house—she would be my critic, my honored scrutineer, and never, never my friend” (p. 321). This realization is pivotal and leads Grace further along the path toward freedom for herself and others. What had seemed, initially, like a last-ditch alliance turns out to be the first step in a different, hopeful, and less lonely journey.
Another developing friendship that Stormsong brings into focus is the one between Grace and Tristan, who is now Miles’s fiancé. Grace was often horrible to Tristan in Witchmark, attempting to instill suspicion in her brother about the glamorous Amaranthine’s motives. Now she recognizes the sustaining nature of their attachment and has begun to comport herself accordingly. In consequence, she and Tristan are getting to know each other with their guards at least partly down, and the more Grace becomes willing to wreak corrective political havoc within Aeland, the more Tristan springs into action as an ally in high-stakes subversion and mischief-making. I missed Witchmark’s high quotient of the languorous, unpredictable Tristan and would happily have taken more of him in Stormsong, but on the other hand I would never give up some of the wild scenes Polk has written for him in this book. These include his wholehearted participation in a nervy prison rescue, in full character as a high-camp, furious elf-prince. It’s a scene I think of as “Tristan goes full Thranduil,” with apologies to Lee Pace, and it’s delightful. You really don’t want to miss it. There are pleasures to be gained from having to watch more carefully than usual for your favorite characters.
Now. Love. Grace has two competing admirers. One she is very aware of, the other she is not. We met the glamorous newspaper reporter Avia Jessup briefly in Witchmark, but here she emerges as a source of difficulty and fascination for the young Chancellor, especially since a) Grace is not all that able to toggle between professional-Grace and amorous-Grace, and b) Avia Jessup wants to blow a couple of sensitive political stories sky-high. The other claimant to Grace’s affections I won’t reveal, since Stormsong prefers to keep it quiet for approximately 90% of the book, and the degree of muffling around it is important to the way the story works and what it has to say.
The two women do share some well-constructed, thoughtfully shaped scenes with a distinctive charge. One of the keys to reading Polk for emotion is to really dwell on her dialogue. If you don’t rush through the ways in which Grace and Avia talk to each other, and you also understand Grace is not very good at being eloquent except when she’s crushing a political rival (… or rivals), you can get at both the challenge and the attraction that’s present between Chancellor and reporter. It’s there, but it takes some readerly slowdown.
I confess, however, that Stormsong’s romance content was a place where I felt the book’s pacing lurched a bit. Perhaps because the book is so jam-packed with deadlines and time shortages and Grace needing fifteen minutes to herself to think, there’s an absence of—I don’t know—“scenic overlooks” in the novel. And while love doesn’t need leisure to blossom, it does at least need a moment to really take someone in, to look at them. In Witchmark, we clearly understand what a pillar of glamour and dangerous savvy Grace is. It’s part of what makes Miles wary of her, because he also knows her power is rooted in the suffering of others. In Stormsong, Polk found herself I think in a bind: Grace still needs to be charismatic and persuasive, or else she can’t plausibly build and manipulate political coalitions; but she also needs to deconstruct, judge, and atone for the system that produced her skills and standing. It’s a lot to ask of any character, and sometimes the net consequence of the demand is a numb “just-power-through” tone that colors Grace’s perceptions and speeches, and leaves us lacking a full sense of why people might be impressed by her—why they (why Avia in particular) might desire her.
You can fill in some of the not-precisely-blanks. You can read for nuance, and you can get there. But, when it finally does arrive at an extended moment of erotic charge, in a temporarily triumphant lull at the end of the novel, the book seems to register its own hurry. Then, the conversation between Grace and Avia is retrospective, historical. It reviews the moments in the past when they have had time to notice each other. And this seems like a structural acknowledgement of the fact that, in Stormsong, they really have not. Perhaps in the next book. C. L. Polk will leave you looking forward to that one, too.
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