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Winter be my shield by Jo Spurrier

A review by Nalini Haynes

Winter be my shield by Jo Spurrier is an epic high fantasy. This review updated on 19 June 2023 to correct my errors, link DMZ’s podcast featuring Jo Spurrier, and to pander to SEO.

The publisher says:

“Sierra has a despised and forbidden gift — she raises power from the suffering of others. Enslaved by the king′s torturer, Sierra escapes, barely keeping ahead of Rasten, the man sent to hunt her down. Then she falls in with dangerous company: the fugitive Prince Cammarian and his crippled foster-brother, Isidro.

“But Rasten is not the only enemy hunting them in the frozen north and as Sierra′s new allies struggle to identify friend from foe, Rasten approaches her with a plan to kill the master they both abhor. Sierra is forced to decide what price she is willing to pay for her freedom and her life …”

Politics. Fascinating when it’s fiction.

The above storyline is set in a framework of international politics.  The setting is like a northern country bordering the Arctic Circle, where winter rules and summer is a slush-fest of mud and insects.

I don’t understand the fascination with snow for people like Jo Spurrier and Rowena Cory Daniels who DON’T LIVE IN THE SNOW! But both write it so well that I feel cold.  In spring. In MELBOURNE. Thanks, Jo.

However, I’ve never been to a country like this. Who wants to live in the freezing snow, where frostbite and hypothermia are real daily threats just so you can more accurately critique a book?  Not me. So I can’t judge the accuracy but, after interviewing Jo Spurrier, I developed a deep appreciation for her research!

Magic system

Magic is an important feature of Winter but a minority of characters have the potential and even fewer are potent wielders. Sierra, the female protagonist, is one of the most naturally powerful magic users. However, even Sierra’s magic comes at a price, without which it is limited. Also Sierra needs training in how to use the magic, a more complex problem to solve than it may appear.

I prefer magic with limitations and costs so Spurrier’s structure appeals to me. Sierra doesn’t seem to be suffering as much as she should according to her gift and the price it exacts. I’ll see how this aspect plays out in future instalments of the story.

Social Structures

NOTE: I ramble here. Many thoughts. But Jo Spurrier says she researched this kind of social structure in Siberia, with limitations. This ethnic group was secretive so little is known about their society. As such, Spurrier took facts and built a fictional world around those facts. She doesn’t claim this is an accurate depiction of their lives.

Much thought has been put into social structures in Winter.  In a society where being alone in the freezing country can mean death, the minimum stable family unit is considered to be four: two husbands and two wives.  Larger family units seem to be preferable.

This is a creative response to the dangers of the landscape and yet it didn’t seem to have been taken to its fullest potential.  Husbands are considered brothers together while wives are sisters together: there is a strong demarcation.  This demarcation, taken to its logical conclusion, means that sexual congress involves one husband and one wife, which would result in all sorts of relationship complications, most likely causing tension, conflict and necessitating a hierarchical structure within the family not implied within the novel.

Paint Your Wagon

In societies where one man has many wives there is a definite structure. Man is the pinnacle of the hierarchy but is also constrained by many rules and regulations. Then comes the first or most honored wife, then…

There are rules governing sex and their relationships that are needed to manage conflicts; similar structures would be needed in this society.  Admittedly the family units involved in Winter are not central to the story, they are either families of origin or families with whom the central characters travel.

For some facts, some fiction and a lot of fun, watch Paint Your Wagon, an old old movie that was on TV once when I was a kid. It was the first time I learnt about official polygamy, as opposed to the adults around me jumping in and out of beds with others between fights with each other.

[Spoilers, Sweetie]

However one family is affected sufficiently for a little conflict to be mentioned and a divorce to occur; I wanted more exploration of the conflict that resulted in the divorce.  The divorce just felt a bit too pat, a bit too much like the strings were being tied up before these characters left the stage to possibly but not necessarily return to the story at a much later date.  [Spoiler Ends]

That criticism is minor, with the characters not central to the story.

Homosexuality, villainy and a sympathetic villain

One point that, if I recall the novel correctly, may cause controversy: I think the only homosexual character is the truest villain of the piece, Kell, who habitually raped his prisoners and Rasten, his apprentice.

Kell is the most two-dimensional character in Winter, being a caricature of evil because of his use of rape and torture to extract magical power from others.  I’m not a fan of two-dimensional villains but Spurrier is forgiven for Kell for two reasons.

Firstly, Kell doesn’t appear in Winter, other than in people’s memories or thoughts.  Kell is a shadow on the horizon, the brewing storm whose unleashing will probably be the final climax of the trilogy.  And secondly, Rasten.  OMG RASTEN.  I will forgive Spurrier much because of Rasten.

Rasten

Rasten is the villain’s apprentice, appearing in Winter while his master remains off-stage. He builds anticipation of his master’s momentous entrance.  Rasten is one of the best villains ever.  He’s raped and tortured people; never forget it.  Intentionally injuring one of the men set to escort him on a mission, Rasten murders him later for more power. Think of his magic as a form of vampirism.

Spurrier builds up this seemingly shallow, brutal caricature as a line drawing AND THEN she proceeds to color him in, using the richest oils available.  Rasten is brutal and evil and doesn’t know it, he’s entirely justified in his own eyes.  He is himself a victim.  A victim of Kell’s rape and torture, the product of which is Kell’s power. Rasten’s ongoing servitude is guaranteed by the maiming Kell intentionally inflicted upon Rasten to ensure Kell’s safety. His only hope for freedom lies in teaming with Sierra to murder Kell.  Thus Rasten is abhorrent and sympathetic simultaneously, his behavior can be endlessly erratic and unpredictable without being out of character.

Politics: fun when it’s fantasy

International politics are a feature of the story, leaning towards complex although not achieving Machiavellian complexity.  Political history and current international political events tended to be deviations from the ‘show don’t tell’ convention.  Spurrier minimizes telling, but the occasional explanation of political complexities and predictions by characters seemed a little… forced? artificial?  Not quite the word or feeling I’m looking for here.

Even common people in the real world sit around at home discussing national and international politics at times. These brief political discussions often didn’t quite seem natural, didn’t quite manage to fit the flow. Again, this is a minor criticism, especially as I’m fairly confident that international politics will be a key ingredient of future instalments of this story. Seeding knowledge of the politics in the first novel builds the story, giving depth to the characters involved in the political scene.

During Winter, a foreign power invades, taking slaves.  This conflict is shown from both sides, victims and invaders.  An invading mage contemplates her tasks in the invading force with distaste whilst believing that slavery is necessary for her country.

This mage, Delphine, has suffered social stigma due to pursuing a career goal resulting in her marriage ending in divorce.  She’s combating sexism in a patriarchal society whilst supporting slavery and yet violating rules governing treatment of slaves.  Delphine is a complex character. Her lack of dissonance with her apparently contradicting beliefs is believable whilst foreshadowing future character development in later instalments of the trilogy.

The verdict

Winter be my shield is a high fantasy incorporating good character development, an interesting and complex world with an international political scene, a well-thought-out magic system and a dynamic plot.  While I don’t usually like giving star ratings, I have no hesitation in giving Winter be my shield four out of five stars.

Update: this book still resonates with me. It’s one of the few I have never forgotten. Reading back over this review now, I feel I was overly harsh. I’ll give it 5 stars. – Nalini, 19 June 2023. Review updated for accuracy, to fix images and to pander to SEO requirements.

Winter Be My Shield cover: a person dressed in furs slogs through snow

Nalini
Nalinihttps://www.darkmatterzine.com
Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.

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