This book set off my inner book evangelist. I had somehow gotten the impression that it was set in Edwardian England, but it is actually fantasy. It opens in a hospital, where Dr. Miles Singer has just gotten a memo ordering him to release sixteen of his patients by the end of the week, to make room for new admissions. Soldiers from his home country of Aeland will be returning victorious from the recently-ended war with Laneer, and many will need care. Miles, himself a veteran of the war, is concerned that the vets already under his care are experiencing fits of homicidal rage.
Then an emergency case arrives at the hospital's doors: a dying man who says his name is Nick Elliot. He tells Miles, "Help me, Starred One. I am murdered." Calling Miles "Sir Christopher," Elliot says that he was poisoned, he asks him to find his murderer, and he tells him "The soldiers . . .they deserve the truth." Miles, who has magical powers that can aid healing, sees that the man has a magical aura, a witch's aura, and before Elliot dies on the examining table, he passes power on to Miles. Watching everything from a corner of the room is the man who carried him into the hospital, who introduces himself as Tristan Hunter. When Miles realizes what Hunter has seen and heard, he panics. Accusations of witchcraft will get Miles sent to an asylum. But if he is outed as Christopher Hensley, his family will reclaim him. In the upper levels of society to which his family belongs, those with magic aren't sent to asylums, they are bound to another, who draws off the power to fuel their own. It was to escape life as a bound Secondary that Miles fled his family and changed his name, to study medicine and then join the army.
Tristan Hunter doesn't want to out Miles. He wants his help, to find out who murdered Nick Elliot and why. As a gesture of good faith, he shows Miles that he too has power, and Miles agrees to help him. Meanwhile, Miles is also trying to figure out why his veterans talk of someone inside their heads, inciting them to rage and violence. He can use his power to help them, but always at the risk of revealing himself. As the two investigations proceed, we learn more about Aeland, about Miles' world, about the war with Laneer, and about Tristan, who carries some deep secrets of his own. He and Miles form a partnership and a cautious friendship. And then Miles, forced to attend a hospital function, meets his sister Grace again. He fled his family to avoid being bound as her Secondary. Grace promises that she won't bind him against his will, but their father will not let him escape again.
I enjoyed this book so much. Miles is a very sympathetic character and also a complex one, carrying his multiple identities. He is fighting to care for his soldier patients, but he also wants the murderer of Nick Elliot brought to justice. He has spent years hiding, both his identity and his magic. He too is dealing with the effects of the war, on himself as well as his patients. It was lovely to see him slowly learn to trust Tristan, whom he finds devastatingly attractive. Their investigation becomes increasingly dangerous, linked to the highest levels of the government as well as the asylums where suspected witches are confined. It's a very timely book, concerned with the use and abuse of power. Soldiers used by the government in its war, people with magic exploited by those who with greater power - and that exploitation runs deeper than Miles can imagine. It all builds to a shattering conclusion, one that seems to beg for a sequel. I hope C.L. Polk is writing one! I would love to meet Miles and Tristan again.