Winter comes to the land only once in a hundred years. But the snow covers ancient secrets: secrets that could topple a kingdom. Mauritaine was a war hero. Then he was accused of treason and sentenced to life without parole at Crere Sulace, a dark and ancient prison in the mountains, far from the City Emerald. But now the Seelie Queen – Regina Titania herself – has offered him one last chance to redeem himself, an opportunity to regain his freedom and his honor.
This is how I sold Midwinter to my friends on Monday evening when we had a get-together for all things reviewer and book-like: Faeries and a mix of the Dirty Dozen and Oceans Eleven.
Ana and Katie gawped at me, Kaz smiled smugly and Mark just shook his head and rolled his eyes. That is my elevator spiel. And I got every single one of them interested in the book. I felt a bit smug BUT then I explained to them, roughly, what the book is about and why they should make sure they read it. They were still interested, so I was convinced that between my sell and Matthew Sturges' writing, we'd managed to sell his book to a few more people.
Midwinter is not like anything you might very well come to expect when you mention fairies or the Fae. It forces you to toss your preconceptions about pointy eared elves and maids in gossamer gowns straight out the window. Here we are faced with a well-drawn world with trappings of medieval society (so far, so the same) and we have the two opposing courts – the Seelie and the Unseelie (so far, so the same) – and yes, there is animosity (sfsts) between the two courts. It is in essence a martial society ruled over by a matriach which is quite new - or new to me, at least. The two queens – Titania and Mab - whose presence, although they do not appear very often or for extended periods of time in the novel, is felt throughout. Mab’s city is a massive floating city powered by Chambers of Elements and Motion. The threat of Unseelie invasion is tangible throughout and lends a quality of urgency to the novel. There is no vain posturing by these queens when they make their appearance – and it is a refreshing change. The old tropes of having the fae be over the top and thee and thou has no place in Midwinter.
The main character, Mauritaine is equally well plotted. Here we have a hero fallen on bad times, locked away for a perceived treason against the Seelie and Queen Titania herself. He longs for nothing more to regain his freedom, to destroy his enemies, and to pick up the remnants of his old life, and to reprise his role as Captain of the Guard. But, locked away within Crere Sulace, a remote prison in the far reaches of the mountains, and with no chance of parole, this is not likely to happen. Yet, one day, a group of guards arrive at the mountain with orders from the Queen’s Chamberlain to release Muritaine and a group of prisoners of his choice, to fulfil a task set out by the Queen – by not fulfilling the task, the Seelie world would collapse and the Fae would die. If they succeed they would be granted their freedom and all past deeds would be forgiven. It is in essence, a suicide mission, but to be honest, it is a better choice than dying as a prisoner somewhere awful.
Mauritaine sets about choosing his companions. His actions are swift and he has the Gift of Leadership so his commands are quickly met by his erstwhile captors. He chooses a young nobleman, Lord Silverdun, Raieve a female warrior of great skill and Brian Satterly, a human scientist who had strayed into Faerie to rescue a Changeling child.
We follow the group through various travails as they by turns fight for their survival, run for their lives and become heroes of a semi-rebellion.
I enjoyed Midwinter and think that Matthew Sturges has only started to dazzle us with his too easy writing style and clever character creations and twisty plotlines. It wasn’t until quite late into the book that I cottoned onto what exactly it is that their task was as it is not actually ever revealed in so many words! Fortunately, this trick, instead of hampering or annoying, heightens the mystery and sense of urgency.
Mauritaine’s character has this inner core of self-belief and strength which makes him an excellent main character. He does not become tiring and his actions are believable throughout. There are several air-punching moments in the novel and quite a few humourous encounters. Brian Satterly’s character, as the human, is beautifully underplayed and he struggles to cope in the world of the Fae – it is both what he expected and not. Sturges has managed to convey the difference between the Fae and Brian wonderfully by use of dialogue and “racial” preconceptions.
There is a mix of cultures here with tiny elements of science fiction and not too little magic but it is woven seamlessly into a strong debut novel by a writer already adept at writing graphic novels. The plot is evolved enough to satisfy with an antagonist that veers from almost likeable to despicable and secondary characters who could in turn be set up in their own novels within Sturges’ world. (hint! hint!)
Find Matthew Sturges’ site here and Pyr, his US publisher’s site here.