Everything about this book sounded like it was going to be exactly my kind of thing (sign me up for any and all f/f fairy tale political fantasy!) and it really hit the spot!
Book: The Winter Duke by Claire Eliza Bartlett
Read before: No
Publication date: 13th October 2020
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Titan Books. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: Family illness and death; violence and injury (not too graphic); vomiting; parental emotional abuse.
When sixteen-year-old Ekata wakes up to find that her entire backstabbing royal family has been cursed into unconsciousness, she’s forced into the role of Grand Duke of Kylma Above, a tiny, icy duchy set above the magical underwater world of Kylma Below. She grew up in constant fear for her life, with her twelve siblings plotting to murder each other and shorten the path to the throne, but she never wanted to rule, and was looking forward to escaping to university to study medicine. Now she has to avoid being forced to marry the boorish other potential heir, try to solve the curse on her family, and keep Kylma Above from falling apart. It’s part mystery, part coming of age story, and part political fantasy, and it comes together into a compelling, clever read.
I do have to say, I’m a little bit confused by this book being blurbed as a reworking of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘The Twelve Dancing Princesses’, as it seems to draw very minorly from the former, and not at all from the latter. The ruling family is put to sleep, and the castle is overrun with roses, but life goes on around the sleepers, and they themselves are somewhat sidelined, so while I see the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ influences, it’s a bit of a stretch. The only things it has in common with ‘The Twelve Dancing Princesses’ is there being a lot of siblings, and the presence of an underworld, but neither of these aspects are used in remotely the same way. I would say it’s about as relevant as calling this a reworking of ‘The Little Mermaid’ because there are people who live in the sea! While I absolutely loved this book’s originality, I am slightly disappointed I didn’t get the retelling of ‘The Twelve Dancing Princesses’ I would have loved to have read – it’s one of my favourite fairy tales. Don’t go into this expecting a retelling or even a reworking, despite the blurb; it’s wholly its own kind of thing. But that’s a good thing!
One of my favourite things to read about in fantasy is someone who was never destined to rule being suddenly flung onto the throne and having to work out how to manage a kingdom in turmoil. I mentioned in my review for Queen of Coin and Whispers that so often there isn’t enough actual politics in books that claim to be ‘political fantasy’; while it doesn’t quite have the complexity of Queen, I thought that The Winter Duke did an amazing job of showing the actual hard work behind rulership and the difficulties of navigating personalities in an unhappy court. Ekata, who had always kept her head down and avoided any politics, has a really interesting journey as she tries to hold authority by mimicking her father, only to find out that actually, he may not be the role model she thought he was. Her frustration with the bureaucracy of the court is clear, but what made this work really well is that you can also sense the court’s frustration with her! Where a simpler book might have made a big deal of the conflict between what Ekata wants to do for herself and what she needs to do for her duchy, The Winter Duke goes further; there’s a conflict between the autocracy Ekata needs to wield to keep Kylma Above in line, and its effects, which may push its people into outright rebellion. I hugely enjoyed her interactions with her advisors, and her character growth throughout the book as she learns to rely on herself is great. However, though the politicking and personal alliances are on point, I found the actual workings of the kingdom to be a little bit confusing – the only aspect of the state really discussed in any depth is the sale of magic to other kingdoms, but I felt a little adrift as to how the economy functioned. Compared to something like Queen of Coin and Whispers, which clearly showed how each facet of the kingdom tied into other issues, this felt a little thin on the statecraft – but that’s a personal preference, and not a particular flaw of the book if you’re not someone who nerds out about fantasy agriculture and economics…
My other favourite thing about this book (there were a few!) was the vividness of Kylma Below, the underwater world filled with magic and mer-people (but not how you’re thinking). I loved seeing this world, and looked forward to all of Ekata’s trips underwater. It’s always a good thing with me to have a heroine who is interested in learning, and I loved Ekata’s enthusiasm for Kylma Below, because I felt it too – I do wish, though, that her passion had played more of a role in the politics, as although the two duchies are supposed to be deeply intertwined, they ended up feeling like every separate sections of Ekata’s life. I would happily have swapped a couple of the scenes of Sigis’s bullying and blustering (which do get a little repetitive – we get it, he’s a dick) for more exploration of how Kylma Above and Kylma Below work together, or even just scenes in the underwater court. (I also somehow managed to believe going into this that it was going to be a romance with a merperson, but I think that’s on me.)
Although the romance isn’t quite what I expected, it’s a powerful element of the book. Ekata’s trying desperately to avoid being forced to marry the odious Sigis, so she selects (almost at random) one of her eldest brother’s potential brides to marry, a girl named Inkar whose sense of humour Ekata had previously admired. There’s a lot of mistrust between them at first; Ekata’s been conditioned by her family to think that any kindness must be a trick, that any closeness will hide an attempt on her life. Watching her fall in love with Inkar is also watching her heal from her traumatic upbringing, and it brings a warmth to this icy story that I really enjoyed. As I say, the book doesn’t spend too much time on drama around their romance – certainly not as much as you might expect from YA fantasy! – but their relationship was one of my favourite parts of the book. It’s also fantastic to have a queer-norm world – the potential brides for both Ekata and her brother are of all genders, and though Ekata is a lesbian (judging from a couple of comments – she isn’t labelled on page), it’s never made an issue of either way. There are multiple non-binary side characters too!
I had a great time reading this, and I think if it hadn’t been for the blurb building misleading expectations about the fairy tale aspects, it could easily have been a five star read. The end in particular is really satisfying – not at all where I thought it was going to go, which is refreshing. It’s a fun, fast-paced, and clever read that will suit fans of court fantasy right down to the ground. Add in a great f/f romance, and this is one I’ll be recommending for ages. Four and a half out of five cats!