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Soulstar coverSoulstar is the final instalment of C.L. Polk’s Kingston Cycle, which began with the World Fantasy Award-winning Witchmark (2018), followed by Stormsong (2020). It is a challenging and thoughtful conclusion to a series that has always been about accommodating new knowledge and new practice, about changing yourself in order (and in time) to meet difficult circumstance at the point of acute need. Polk’s great achievement throughout the series has been their ability to blend the terrifying with the cozy, the lacerating work of politico-personal education and resistance with the characters’ pleasurable commitment to communal care and self-care. The only way to survive a crumbling world and a corrupt political order, these books argue, is to create and take joy as often as you humanly—or immortally—can. You especially have to do that if you’re also going to create a revolution.

Examples of Polk’s singular blend of state-created trauma, environmental crisis, and hygge interiors and relationships abound in the trilogy. Here is one instance, basically at random. About a third of the way through Witchmark, the protagonist Miles Singer is having dinner with his new acquaintance Tristan, after being chased through the streets of Aeland’s capital city of Kingston by an unknown spy:

… excitement was turning into jittery nerves. That man had been waiting for me. Had followed us … the meaning sank under my skin and shivered: [a] murderer knew I was involved.

I turned my sherry glass with fidgety fingers and watched Tristan work in shirtsleeves. He could cook, handling knife and pot with speed and grace … He sliced, sautéed, and served us slabs of beefsteak and a motley of greenhouse-grown vegetables with browned mushrooms.

“More where that came from.” He urged me to have more. “It’s fuel; you’ll need it.” (Witchmark, p. 123)

Miles is on the verge of discovering the greatest scandal of Aeland’s ruling class: the fact that the national power and light company is dependent on necromantic magic powered by the slave labor of incarcerated witches. His near-knowledge of this terrible secret is the reason he is being followed, and the reason he will ultimately come within a hairsbreadth of losing his life for the liberation of others. Terrible revelations await him, and physical damage so severe that for the remainder of the trilogy he is shown making use of magical assistive technology to perform everyday tasks. But in the interim, and also in the future, there is Tristan: “work[ing] in his shirtsleeves,” attending to the lulls in which opportunities for recovery and happiness can be found, handy with a sherry glass, a knife, jailbreaks, inter-dimensional diplomacy, field-dressings, five-course meals with friends. In The Kingston Cycle, alternating currents of painful service and intentional joy power the work of change.

Someone could and I hope will write a thesis about the way self-care and communal care are differently construed by the major characters in the trilogy, all of whom—in a structural choice that seems particularly Polkian—have initially different political commitments and inhabit different racial, cultural, and social worlds. They are united, however, by the need to pull the kingdom of Aeland back from the brink of several different forms of imminent destruction. In order to succeed they must also cooperatively determine the least nocent, most effective methods of governing for the benefit of Aeland’s imperilled citizens.

The most difficult protagonist to incorporate into the coalition is the main character of Stormsong, Dame Grace Hensley. Grace is Chancellor of the Realm; she is also Miles Singer’s sister, and a person struggling with her own implication in the evils worked by the covertly magical aristocracy of which she is a part. Here, for example, is Grace wanting to pull Miles aside for an important conversation, but instead running smack into the apparent inconvenience of his close friendship with the political opposition figure Robin Thorpe (the main character of Soulstar). Thorpe is a Black nurse-turned-democratic-organizer who is also a Deathsinger, able to see and talk with ghosts.

I ran through the halls, desperate to get to Miles … Tristan was there. I’d expected that. They were sitting down to a candlelit dinner. I ought to have expected that. But seated at the table, twisted to peer at me still in my hat and hand-warmer, was Robin Thorpe, and that wouldn’t do. That wouldn’t do at all.

“Grace,” Miles said. “Good to see you. Come and eat.” (Stormsong, p. 290)

Robin is already “at the table”—a table to which Grace needs access if she’s going to find help and community in the middle of the exhausting work of equivocal governance that she must, for the time, sustain. But Grace cannot at first accept or trust Robin’s presence, and this mistrust is justifiably mutual. It isn’t until Robin takes over the work of narration, in Soulstar, and Grace slips further into the background of the Kingston Cycle—becoming a sustaining part but no single pillar of the forces that are trying to reshape Aeland—that some of the animus between the two women begin to fade.

Another factor that helps Grace’s relationship with Robin is the slow erosion of Grace’s politics of compromise, and her increasing commitment to the urgent social equity projects authored by Robin and her community. Grace’s eventual move from roughly center-right to far left is a trajectory emblematic of the trilogy itself, which begins in nostalgia—adorable wizards and immortals falling in love while solving murder-mysteries in a quasi-Edwardian kingdom—and ends in a full-scale democratic revolt, plotted and powered by those the monarchy and aristocracy have harmed most. Gradually, though not slowly, Polk directs the content of the cycle in ever more revisionary and justice-seeking directions, and this is reflected in the change of narrator that makes each new volume. As Polk themself has recently said, the Kingston Cycle “starts with a … man with a problem [Miles] and ends with a 40+ [year-old] working class community organizing Black queer woman [Robin] who has too much to do.” The uncomfortable and unmentioned middle unit here is of course Grace Hensley, herself a difficult work under revision: a revision, we hope, away from the damaging and brittle privilege of wealthy white women in this and other worlds.

So. Soulstar. It’s so interesting to have really enjoyed the first two books of a trilogy, and then get to the third and think, “Oh, now we’re cooking.” Here we are finally allowed into the world of Robin Thorpe, who was first introduced in Witchmark as Miles’s quietly competent colleague and friend, and revealed in Stormsong as a covert witch whose powers have been carefully hidden (along with those of many others) by her Black Samindan community, a group that has settled in an area of Kingston known as Riverside. Robin’s life is very different from that of the white, wealthy aristocrats who precede her as Polk’s narrators, and who literally inhabit Aeland’s seats of power, residing in luxurious private apartments in Mountrose Palace, or bespoke individual homes with a full staff of servants. Robin, instead, lives in a small suite of rooms in the clan house of the Thorpes, sharing a roof with her entire extended family. It’s a living arrangement that Grace Hensley, for instance, looks at with a stranger’s eye. And the Thorpes in their generations past and present look back at Grace with a similar sense of watching something, someone, rarely seen in real life.

Here, Grace—in her official capacity as Chancellor—is visiting the Thorpe clan’s home in order to advance diplomatic relations with the Parliamentarian abolitionist movement, spearheaded by Robin’s friend and sometime boss, MP Jacob Clarke. [1]

We [Grace and her party] left our footwear at the door and followed the old man—the eldest of the house, who only answered the door for the most esteemed guests – through a double-wide hallway. Hundreds of photographs of Thorpes—depicted alone, in pairs, in clumps and assemblies – stared solemnly at me, their gaze following even as I moved away. (Stormsong, p. 236)

With this description, Polk efficiently shows us Grace Hensley on the outside of a complex familial culture and its intimate local relationships. In Soulstar they begin to show us, via Robin’s account, the Thorpe clan home in its lived-in state, with its particular pleasures and tasks and quotidian accommodations: the multiple parlors where gossip hums, guests are received and examined, and family games and squabbles thrive; the communal dining room, the kitchen where dreaded dishwashing shifts are taken according to rotation; the house’s small, carefully arranged private spaces.

In one important scene, Robin shows her own apartment to her newly returned spouse, Zelind. The two must suddenly share it, after being parted for twenty years by Zelind’s incarceration in one of the now-dissolved witch asylums:

Zelind stayed behind me [on the stairs], past the second floor that kept families grouped together, to the third floor, where my rooms were tucked into a corner at the back of the clan home.

“This is it.” I moved all the way into the room and opened the curtains, catching what little light was left.

My view gazed out to the Ardelia Densmore Canal, now frozen, leveled, and scuffed by hundreds of ice skate blades. Three panes of glass separated the frigid outdoor air from my modest little sitting room, a chamber insulated by books climbing to the ceiling and an oval rug braided from torn-up bedding and outworn clothes.

Zelind took a deep breath before crossing the room to sit in the rocking chair with the best light. (Soulstar, p. 62)

Is this unassuming, small, familiar place a locus of political power? Of course, the book answers: of course it is. But not easily, not without much further change. Zelind, who uses khe/kher pronouns and who long ago renounced kher powerful shipbuilding, rentier-class family—the Bays—in order to marry Robin, is living proof that by this point in the Cycle the Kingston abolitionists have been partly successful. All of the surviving, formerly incarcerated witches—and in some cases their children, born and raised in the asylums—are flooding back to their astonished families, and Robin and her Parliamentary coalition stand ready to pursue reparations from the royal government. But they will encounter violent pushback, and a loss of seasoned leadership—both of which force Robin to the fore of an increasingly ambitious and urgent revolutionary movement. In the midst of accommodating herself to a new and dangerous public role, Robin must try to weather the combined sweetness and pain of reunion with a love she believed lost for twenty years. And Zelind may yet be lost to her again, if the spouses’ tentative attempts at reconciliation and re-learning each other are frustrated by trauma-driven misunderstandings and the baleful influence of Zelind’s estranged family.

How does Polk resolve this tremendous tangle? Dexterously, exhilaratingly, in the main. One part of the conclusion of The Kingston Cycle involves capital punishment, by which which some readers may be surprised given the politics of the series as a whole. The execution that occurs at the end of Soulstar is certainly both foreshadowed and, according to the reasoning of most democratic nation-states, justified. I was unsettled, however, by what it did to the series’ total representation of the nature of well-administered justice. In general, though, this final volume of the trilogy is reflective of the nature of the Kingston Cycle as a whole: it’s much, much more—and even better—than what you thought you were signing up for when you first picked up that opening novel with its bicycle-riding wizard on the cover.

Endnotes

[1] In the world of Polk’s Cycle, “abolition” refers to the effort to close down the witch asylums that once constituted much of the country’s utility infrastructure, and restore the imprisoned witches to their families, with reparations. [return]

 



Catherine Rockwood (she/they) reads and edits for Reckoning Magazine. Her poetry chapbook, Endeavors to Obtain Perpetual Motion, is available from the Ethel Zine Press. Another mini-chapbook, And We Are Far From Shore: Poems for Our Flag Means Death, will be published by Ethel in 2023. They have reviewed books and occasionally TV for Strange Horizons since 2015.
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