10 December, 2011

Winterbirth, by Brian Ruckley. Book review

Orbit, 2006, ISBN 978-1-84149-423-4. 537 pages.

Winterbirth is the first of a fantasy trilogy set in the invented ‘Godless World’, an imaginary location on the north-western edge of a continent. It is inhabited by two main races each subdivided into separate, often warring, clans, tribes and kingdoms. The Kyrinin live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in forests and mountains, and their two main clans in Winterbirth, Fox and White Owl, are implacable hereditary enemies. The Huanin, humans with approximately medieval technology, are divided into Bloods (clans) grouped on religious lines into two broad alliances, the Black Road in the north and Haig in the south. Kyrinin and Huanin can interbreed to produce na’kyrim, who cannot have children but who can access a supernatural power called the Shared.

Orisian, nephew of the Thane of Lannis-Haig, is just entering adulthood. Inexperienced and with no great talent as a warrior, he is still mourning the deaths of his mother and elder brother and is anxious for his father who suffers periodic severe depression. All these concerns are swept aside when the Lannis lands are attacked and overrun by the Horin-Gyre Blood of the Black Road, bent on exacting revenge for their defeat and exile many years earlier, and acting in alliance with the White Owl Kyrinin. Orisian is wounded in the attack and is saved only by his faithful shieldman Rothe and the unexpected help of two Kyrinin from the Fox clan. With his lands in ruins, most of his family dead and the Horin-Gyre warriors determined to slaughter every last member of the Lannis ruling family, Orisian faces a desperate journey south to the precarious safety of the allied Kilkry Blood. But as well as the pursuing Horin-Gyre warriors and the sinister Inkallim, a more deadly power is at large – the na’kyrim Aeglyss who wields a terrible and destructive power in the Shared that may plunge the whole world into war and darkness.

Winterbirth is a dark tale focused on destruction, despair, battle and blood. The tagline on the front cover says “The greatest tales are written in blood...”, which gives the reader a fair idea of what to expect. I found the first 90 pages rather slow, as the rival political factions and the existing order are introduced and the back-story of the enmity between Haig and Black Road is filled in. Although it may seem slow, the build-up is necessary to establish the various factions and characters, because when events do start to move, they move fast as Orisian has to run for his life. I found the list of characters at the back and the two maps at the front invaluable for keeping my bearings.

Although a fantasy novel, Winterbirth does not involve a great deal of explicit magic (a plus point for me). The Kyrinin are not human – a sort of cross between elves and aboriginal hunter-gatherers – and have skills that humans do not have, such as keener senses and greater healing abilities, but this could be read as technology rather than magic as such. The major supernatural element is the ‘Shared’, which seems to permit such things as telepathy and a form of mind control. I suspect from the ending of Winterbirth that the Shared is going to play a much greater role in the rest of the trilogy, as Aeglyss’ sinister powers become more developed.

Much of the plot in Winterbirth itself is driven by political rivalries, both between the major human groupings (Black Road versus Haig) and within them. The various kingdoms have a complex and well-realised history of political and religious conflicts, and for me this was a strong point of the novel. The Black Road clans believe in predestination and were exiled for their creed a century or so before the events of Winterbirth. They want revenge on the Haig clans who defeated and exiled them, they want their old lands back, and they want to impose their religious beliefs on the rest of the world. Cutting across this major conflict, there are many internal conflicts within both Haig and Black Road, and the internal politicking between rival factions seems as significant as the main struggle.

Another feature I liked very much was the landscape, particularly the mountain and moorland descriptions. The topography is reminiscent of the western Highlands of Scotland, with long mountain ridges dividing glens and sea lochs, and the rugged Car Criagar with its crags, biting winds and treeless uplands reminded me of the Cairngorm plateau (minus the ruined city, of course!).

Winterbirth is a hefty book at over 500 pages, yet it reads more as the first part of a larger story than as the first book in a sequence. The ‘end’ is more of a temporary pause with most of the plot threads still open, and is clearly setting up for Books 2 and 3. For readers who like a story to reach a definite end, it may be a good idea to have the remaining two books lined up. This ‘setting up’ function may account for why Orisian, the central character, seems to be rather a passive figure for much of the novel, being chased from place to place by his enemies and with little opportunity to influence events, let alone to take control and take the fight to the opposition. There is a coming-of-age element to the narrative as Orisian has to grow into the new role so unexpectedly and unwillingly thrust upon him, so I hope he may take on a more active role in the later books. If I’m correct that Aeglyss’ sinister supernatural powers will come more to the fore, it will be interesting to see how Orisian’s role plays out.

First book in a dark fantasy trilogy set in a well-realised imaginary world, with political, religious and clan conflicts and a sinister undercurrent of magic.


Gabriele Campbell said...

I've read that trilogy some time ago. Magic will play a somewhat larger role in the sequels, but it's still more like A Song of Ice and Fire when it comes to the politics/magic ratio. And the darkness.

Ruckley is from Scotland and I'm pretty sure he had the Highlands in mind when he wrote some of those scenes. Haven't read his latest book, The Edinburgh Dead, yet, but it got some good reviews on blogs - sorta steampunk urban fantasy with a very good portrayal of Edinburgh.

Carla said...

I certainly had parts of the Highlands in mind when reading them :-) That's useful to know about the politics/magic ratio - thank you.

Shelley said...

The phrase "Godless World" made me think less of fantasy and more of Wall Street!

Gabriele Campbell said...

Shelley, some of the characters would fit well in both places. :D

Annis said...

Glad you enjoyed this one, Carla, especially as I think I was one of the people who recommended it to you!

I'd like to wish you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Thanks for another year's worth of interesting and thoughtful posts :)

Carla said...

Annis - what a nice thing to say! Thank you, and I am glad you found the posts interesting.

It's quite likely that a recommendation from you would have prompted me to try Winterbirth. If it was you who recommended it, many thanks!