We all love Murderbot, right? Murderbot is one of the absolute best characters to come out of SF in years. I remember when I read the description of Martha Wells’s All Systems Red and thought to myself “I’ve got to put that on hold at the library!” And I was right - it was excellent. I have eagerly awaited each new Murderbot book and also read some of the Rakusa series when it was nominated for the Best Series Hugo. So I was very excited when NetGalley and tordotcom gave me an eARC of Ms. Wells’s new fantasy, The Witch King, in exchange for an honest review.
And it was great! But maybe not as great as I was hoping? I think maybe I doomed it with unfairly high expectations. You see, the thing about the Murderbot books that really resonate are Murderbot itself, and to a lesser extent, ART. Those characters feel so real and so perfect that they carry me through. Sometimes the secondary characters feel like ciphers but I always took that to be because Murderbot doesn’t pay that much attention to them.
The Witch King starts out strong, and ends strong, but there are so many characters with similar sounding names that even the Dramatis Personae section in the front of the book couldn’t always help me remember who was who. I never really felt I got to know many of them, and the protagonist, Kai, was not nearly interesting enough to carry the story the way Murderbot can. I never really felt like I knew why I should be rooting for Kai.
I also didn’t love the structure interspersing flashback chapters after every chapter or every other chapter. Especially because each chapter was so long, it felt like it robbed the story of narrative urgency. Also, the book felt like it was too long for the story it was telling and I would’ve enjoyed this more at novella length.
This review feels like a lot of complaining. Don’t get me wrong - I did enjoy the book. The world building was interesting and there were a number of fun set-pieces. It just wasn’t the home run I had been hoping for.