The Gods have abandoned the realm. Disgusted and disillusioned by the actions of those they created, they have gone to a higher plane in order to escape the savagery and warmongering they had never envisaged. Fast forwarding several centuries, it is the time of Winterbirth. The battles of old have faded into distant memories and at castle Kolglas, the thane and his people celebrate the passing of one season into the next. However, there is treachery afoot and with many of Thane Kennets armies either elsewhere or inebriated, what chance do they stand against the skilled and merciless Inkallim?
Winterbirth by Brian Ruckley has a lot to live up to. Favourably compared by various critics to epics such as Tolkiens Lord of the Rings and Martins Song of Ice and Fire series, this is a novel that really needs to live up to its hype. In a highly competitive fantasy genre it is difficult even for the most seasoned writer to compete. The fact this is Ruckleys debut novel makes Winterbirth an even more important novel.
Fortunately, this is an impressive piece of storytelling, fantasy writing at its best. I would say that you need to persevere with the first fifty pages or so. As the first of what is sure to become a series, Ruckley has to do a lot of scene-setting. This results in a lot of set up before you meet any of the major characters or see anything in the way of a flowing story. These initial pages of Winterbirths history are undoubtedly necessary in order to fully understand the motives and reasonings behind events but it is easy to switch off during these pages, particularly during explanations of religious dogma. However, this is the only criticism I have of this novel and if you persevere you will be rewarded.
After the introductions have been made and the stage has been set, the reader is unleashed on an vastly imaginative, rich and vivid medieval landscape with a huge cast of characters and creeds. This is a novel based on the bloodlines of royalty and families but is essentially a novel about religion. Ruckley, rather cleverly by disposing of Gods early on, leaves the various tribes and families fighting for power and ironically, in the name of the Gods who have forsaken them. This allows him to create a vast number of races with different needs and desires and we are able to empathise and loathe their varying qualities in equal measure.
By not having a clear division between who is right and who is wrong, this is a novel in which it is difficult to root for any particular side. Instead you find yourself concentrating on the individuals regardless of their group's motives. Ruckleys characters all have intriguing flaws and strong, well-realised personalities. As you follow the various individuals on their journeys you will find you become engrossed in their fate to the point where you are part of it. Characters are realistic and relatively free of cliché and it is refreshing to see a male writer giving women strong roles. Even some of my favourite fantasy writers have an annoying habit of assigning women the role of either seductive schemer or tolerant wife. In Winterbirth many of the strongest, most aggressive characters are women. By using various races and creeds Ruckley can show a variety of viewpoints and in my cases this means traditionally weaker characters leading the field. Again, this is a pleasant departure in a genre that could often be accused of becoming stagnant.
It is the sign of a good fantasy writer when you are completely lost in the story. The testament to how lost I became was that I read this in three days. No mean feat considering its 544 pages! The plot is ever changing and the events unexpected. Characters do not behave as you would predict and this means there is no second guessing future events. As a piece of writing, Winterbirth is exciting and descriptive although not particularly emotional. Perhaps, because there is little time to get to know and love the characters, their losses do not become your losses. You do not share their pain although you are involved enough to understand it.
Ruckleys world is a highly believable one and his use of imagery is impressive. You can easily imagine the rocky forests and grandiose castles littering the landscapes The battles and events he describes are adrenaline-filled although very gory, and by centring on one particular character you are able to ride along through melees and feel the rush as they scale castle walls. It is also nice to see a restrained use of sex scenes with a refreshing lack of heaving bosoms and bodices. Again, this is thanks to Ruckleys even handed use of female characters.
I would love to give this novel five stars but the slow introduction means I cannot. Hopefully this is something that will be solved in future episodes as a long introduction will not be required. I suggest this to all fans of the fantasy genre and for me it offers a different take on the fantasy theme by not concentrating on families and royalty and instead placing the emphasis on the individual. As an almost complete opposite to George R.R Martins Song of Ice and Fire series it is an excellent alternative and has a clear narrative that some people may find easier to grasp than the disjointed efforts of the likes of Martin. Winterbirth is a unique and intriguing world that I can see myself coming back to again and again, certainly recommended.
N.B First posted at www.thebookbag.co.uk
It is a godless world. An uneasy truce exists between the human clans and ancient races. But now the clan of the Black Road move south, and their arrival will herald a new age of war and chaos. Behind it all seems to be one man, Aeglyss, a man whose desire for power will only be sated when he has achieved his ultimate goal: immortality.