Bitchery, I struggled with this book. Not with the reading of it, so much, but with trying to parse my feelings and opinions on it, which are complicated. I was very excited about this #OwnVoices book about a trans witch bound in a magical engagement with his childhood best friend, a fae prince. And the initial chapters really drew me in. I wanted to like this so badly!!! But I ultimately kind of did not.
I respect deeply what this book was trying to do, and there were a couple things about it I quite enjoyed. Unfortunately, my overall impression of this book is that it is messy in execution and suffers from plot bloat, inconsistent and/or flat characterization, and a jarring shift in tone. The central character arc and romance also did not quite work for me. With that said, I also think a decent number of people will be ride-or-die obsessed with The Witch King; hopefully my review can help you figure out if that might be you!
The Witch King is about Wyatt, a young witch. When we meet Wyatt, he has escaped a massively abusive and traumatizing situation and system in his hometown, the fae village of Asalin, and is living fairly happily in the human world with a loving adopted family, including his best friend, Briar. Emyr, the fae prince, then shows up and demands Wyatt come back to Asalin and marry him under the threat of death from a magical betrothal contract they signed when they were children. This is very uncool, although it becomes clear quickly that Emyr is also dealing with some extenuating circumstances. In the initial chapters where we meet Wyatt and start to see Asalin I was pretty drawn into the story, and I was curious especially to see how the relationship between Emyr and Wyatt was going to play out.
Before I get into my critiques, I’ll start with some of the stuff I liked about this book. I love that this book is injecting queerness into fae/fairy romance, a subgenre in both YA and adult romance that is often tragically heterosexual. I enjoyed that the primary characters, Wyatt and Emyr, both feel like complex, completely rendered individuals with shades of gray. Wyatt’s voice as the narrator is also quite distinctive and funny with a dark humor I appreciated. It’s hard not to root for Wyatt, who has an unmatched cranky resilience and a well of (justified!) deep rage at the world.
The value of having a fully realized trans boy main character in YA fantasy really cannot be overstated; as much as I found this book messy and frustrating, I also wish it had been available to me 12-14 years ago because it definitely grapples with things I was also grappling with at the time. On that note, even if I was not always satisfied with the result, I deeply respect that this book makes robust attempts to explore a number of serious and complex issues and experiences, like healing from trauma, individual experiences with gender and gendered expectations, and systemic discrimination (woof). I also liked that even though this book deals with transphobia, it’s not a book about transphobia; it is nice to be in a place where lit with queer and trans characters does not have to make the central plot conflict the queerness and/or transness. I also felt compelled to keep reading, although my attention waned considerably around the 85% mark when it became clear that the plot was getting more messy instead of raveling together cohesively.
I found the world-building interesting if not always robust. The division between witches and fae was thought-provoking. In this world, witches are born to fae parents but use magic differently and look completely human instead of having the horns, wings, fangs, and talons the fae have. There are lots of cool magical creatures in the book, which is always fun. I do think the world could have been explored much more, though, if the scope of the plot was trimmed to a manageable level.
Because there are soooooo many plots. Ostensibly the main plot is political instability in Asalin because Derek, Emyr’s cousin, wants the throne for himself. But there’s also the subplot of Wyatt and Emyr’s fraught relationship. And Wyatt and his sister Tessa’s fraught relationship. And Wyatt standing trial for the so-called “crimes” he committed the night he ran away from Asalin years ago. And discrimination against witches by the fae and the secret witch organization trying to fight back. And Wyatt dealing with his trauma and trying to get free of Asalin and Emyr for good. And whether the door into the Faery realm can be opened. And how much Asalin should try to use human technology to modernize. And whether Asalin should make war on humans. There are even more subplots that I won’t describe with specificity because I don’t want to spoil anything, but the vast array of things going on is truly dizzying. It became hard for me to care about the stakes by the end because I was not even sure what the stakes were for most of these subplots.
There’s too much going on and not all of it makes sense. Some of this is interlinked with the character issues in The Witch King. There are LOTS of secondary characters, including Wyatt’s best friend/adopted sister Briar and her family; Wyatt’s sister Tessa and her friend Wade; villain Derek; fae-witch couple Clarke and Jin; Emyr’s parents, the king and queen; other fae royalty; and various other witches. And after reading the book, I have truly no idea who any of them are supposed to be as people because they are almost all either flat or inconsistent.
For example, the only things I learned about Jin in this book were that they are a nonbinary lesbian witch activist dragon handler, which, while very cool, does not constitute a dynamic character so much as a collection of attributes with no legible personality attached. There are also some major character inconsistencies involving semi- or full-blown villain turns near the end of the book that I think are supposed to be “reveals” but did not seem particularly believable or even necessary. Even the main villain, Derek, while extremely stylish and menacing with a whole creepy-sexy-icky vibe going on, does not seem to have much substance other than “is evil” and “wants crown.” (To be fair, two-dimensional villains are a mainstay of many genres, so I was less bothered by this than by the lack of depth to all the other secondary characters).
The only characters who felt real were Wyatt and Emyr. As a result, it often felt like the secondary characters were being driven and jerked around by the plot, instead of plot events naturally arising from character motivations. This is exacerbated by the fact that Wyatt’s character, while well-drawn, is primarily responsive instead of proactive, so Wyatt is not doing a whole lot of driving the plot forward himself. Plot action mostly occurred by secondary characters doing things that are opaque to the reader because the characters themselves are just moving cardboard cut-outs. I think this book would have benefited a LOT from a tighter focus on fewer characters and events that were more developed and explored.
Finally, there’s a big tonal shift in the book that really threw me. The first 40% or so of the book feels dark, complex, and actually very close to adult fantasy in tone. There is a lot of darkness, anger, injustice, and abuse. This is not to say that these things aren’t ever explored in YA, but in this case the early part of the book had a kind of gritty, detailed focus I typically associate with adult fantasy. During this part of the book I thought an intricate but coherent plot was being set up and I assumed characters other than Emyr and Wyatt would emerge more clearly throughout the story. But I was very much thrown by a tonal shift mid-book to something that felt much more YA, with common YA conventions such as “there are clearly and simplistically good and evil characters” and “suddenly we will rebuild a flawed society.” I know this book is marketed as YA, but it did feel a little bit like a bait-and-switch as a reading experience from something more New Adult to something VERY squarely in the YA category.
I’ve laid out some craft issues I had with this book. But ultimately, I think my biggest personal quibble with The Witch King was actually Wyatt’s character arc, which, frankly, exhausted me.
It is made very clear to the reader at the outset of the book that Wyatt has successfully escaped an abusive situation–complete with an abusive family, an abusive society, and a forced engagement from which there seems to be no escape. Then Emyr comes back and threatens Wyatt with literal violence to drag Wyatt back into that situation, even though Emyr supposedly loves Wyatt. This in and of itself is massively fucked up, but once Wyatt arrives in Asalin, he is subject to a bunch of additionally traumatizing and horrifying experiences. Wyatt’s number-one priority in the early book is to do anything to leave Asalin, which, frankly, makes total sense.
But throughout the book, Wyatt starts to feel like maybe his perspective on Asalin (and Emyr) were a little unfairly skewed and that he has some kind of obligation to try to stay in Asalin to reform it. There’s some subtle messaging indicating that part of Wyatt’s problem is Wyatt’s own bad attitude, which felt kinda icky to me.
Look. I’m all for growth and change and introspection in my characters. Early-book Wyatt has a lot of internalized self-loathing and a moderately self-destructive streak because of it. But I was truly not sold on the idea that it represents positive character growth for an abused minor to be sucked back into an abusive situation and then have to put in the effort and labor to fix that abusive situation themselves. Now! I respect that for some people this character arc will actually feel empowering. Wyatt gets to come back to the place that hurt him and remake it to be a better place. However, I could not help but think basically the entire time that I was reading this book that Wyatt probably would have been happier to keep living with his human family, free from what amounts to a bullshit abusive cult that he escaped. Like I said, it made me TIRED.
This feeling was compounded by the fact that I was never quite sold on the romance, either. Emyr was a sufficiently compelling character; the story successfully shows that there is more complexity to the prince than his initial demand of Wyatt indicates, and that he is also struggling under the constraints of fae society. And there are some genuinely swoony moments between Wyatt and Emyr, including a classic “there’s only one bed” accidental cuddling situation.
But ultimately, I thought the relationship between Wyatt and Emyr as presented in the book was toxic and codependent. Wyatt is Emyr’s “fated mate,” which involves some element of magical compulsion that Emyr feels around Wyatt that Wyatt does not feel for Emyr. This lends an obsessive element to Emyr’s “love” for Wyatt that is never adequately addressed. The story also never fully reckons with just how abusive and truly damaging to Wyatt Emyr’s initial threatening behavior is, even if Emyr is also struggling. In fact, Wyatt ends up feeling he’s been too hard on Emyr, which I…did not think was true. It’s clear that Wyatt and Emyr have hurt each other repeatedly throughout their relationship and nothing presented in the story made me think the dynamic had changed enough for them to be healthy together.
So, while there were aspects of the reading experience I enjoyed, The Witch King kind of bummed me out. This is almost certainly partly a result of me having too high of expectations since I was so excited by the idea of reading a fae romantic fantasy with a trans main character. This is a book I really thought would be for me that was ultimately just not for me. (I also have to stop being drawn in by the compelling premises of YA speculative fiction when many common conventions of the genre do not work for me). However, as trans main characters in fantasy, especially YA fantasy, are not thick on the ground, I do think if this is something that appeals to you it is probably worth at least giving this book a shot. Wyatt is a compelling and memorable protagonist and is the strongest part of this book even if I did not personally feel fully satisfied with his arc. I also think lots of people will be drawn in by the humor and probably more personally compelled by the romance than I was, which may carry many readers through the plot and character issues. In conclusion: your mileage may vary but I hope I’ve helped you better figure out by how much!