Soulstar: The culmination is chilling and triumphant

Soulstar by C.L. Polk science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsSoulstar by C.L. Polk science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsSoulstar by C.L. Polk 

“The knock came an hour after we had put up the stormboards and battened down to wait it out.”

With her opening sentence, C.L. Polk starts the action of Soulstar (2021), book three in her KINGSTON CYCLE. And the action rolls on through the first chapter at a breathless pace, with changes that push Robin Thorpe of the Clan of the Peaceful Waters into the spotlight, as she becomes a leader for societal change, and the target of both character assassination and actual attempts on her life.

This review may contain spoilers for Witchmark and Stormsong. I strongly urge you to read the other two first; this book does not stand alone and isn’t meant to.

We met Robin, who was a nurse at the veteran’s hospital, in Witchmark. Robin is studying to become a doctor, and deeply involved in Solidarity, a political movement intent on social equity for the Clans, and freedom for the witches, who have been sent to asylums on the pretext of “keeping society safe” for decades. In reality, the witches are forced to commit terrible acts to provide energy for Aeland’s power grid.

The Kingston Cycle C.L. PolkNow, an abrupt decree from the new King has released all the witches, flooding Riverside and the Clans with hundreds of traumatized, homeless people. Robin’s friend Grace Hensley believes King Severin means well and will do the right thing, since he released the witches, but almost immediately he backslides and prevaricates.

Robin wants nothing more than to spend time with her true love, Zelind, who was imprisoned for nearly twenty years. Zelind, an inventor, uses the gender-neutral pronouns khe and kher. Khe defied kher family to be with Robin and refuses to go home to kher wealthy clan once khe is released. The quiet time Robin and Zelind might have together is cut short by an act of violence that thrusts Robin into the leadership role of Solidarity, putting her at odds with the King and many of her own community. She is aided by Grace, whose political position grows more precarious by the moment, and by the ghosts.

The action never seems to stop in Soulstar, but there are plenty of quieter moments as Robin struggles with doubt and she and Zelind try to figure out how to go forward. The book is packed with subplots, like the Princess Mary Hotel and the work of a group of freed witches to develop their own community, the desperate search for a new power source, and the jostling of various groups, including a gambling ring, for power. The book is a political thriller, complete with betrayals, falsified election results, spies and corrupt cops.

C.L. Polk

C.L. Polk

I wondered how Polk was going to pull this off, since the problems facing Aeland are so serious. She manages brilliantly. Often, the story runs right up to the edge of credibility, but it always stayed on this side of plausible, and the stakes were so high, the characters so compelling, that my suspension of disbelief never truly faltered. I will say that it was uncomfortable reading a scene where a huge crowd of people storm and breach the royal palace, but even that, with its unpleasant resonances, didn’t throw me out of the book. (It helps that I know that scene was written months before January 6, 2021.)

Near the very end of Soulstar, a brief scene where a particular ghost manifests sent chills down my spine — it was that good.

Any questions I would have about this book, and the whole KINGSTON CYCLE, would be less review material, more discussion group questions. Could the citizens of Aeland have achieved what they did without the Amaranthine? Did the Amaranthine basically affect regime change? If they did, is that a bad thing? Can Robin trust the alliances she has now? These aren’t weaknesses in the story; they are the kinds of questions the story brings up.

I eagerly awaited Soulstar, and it did not disappoint on any level. It’s an easy one to recommend, but you must read the other two first.

Published in 2021. With Soulstar, C. L. Polk concludes her riveting Kingston Cycle, a whirlwind of magic, politics, romance, and intrigue that began with the World Fantasy Award-winning Witchmark. Assassinations, deadly storms, and long-lost love haunt the pages of this thrilling final volume. For years, Robin Thorpe has kept her head down, staying among her people in the Riverside neighborhood and hiding the magic that would have her imprisoned by the state. But when Grace Hensley comes knocking on Clan Thorpe’s door, Robin’s days of hiding are at an end. As freed witches flood the streets of Kingston, scrambling to reintegrate with a kingdom that destroyed their lives, Robin begins to plot a course that will ensure a freer, juster Aeland. At the same time, she has to face her long-bottled feelings for the childhood love that vanished into an asylum twenty years ago. Can Robin find happiness among the rising tides of revolution? Can Kingston survive the blizzards that threaten, the desperate monarchy, and the birth throes of democracy? Find out as the Kingston Cycle comes to an end.

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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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