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Monday, March 9, 2009

“Midwinter” by Matthew Sturges (Reviewed by Robert Thompson & Liviu C. Suciu)

Official Matthew Sturges Blog
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AUTHOR INFORMATION: Matthew Sturges is best known for his comic book work including House of Mystery and the Eisner Award-nominated Jack of Fables (both co-written with Bill Willingham), Blue Beetle, and Justice Society of America which he will be taking over with Issue #27 (May 2009). His short stories have been published on RevolutionSF and in the anthology “Live without a Net”, and he was also a member of the writers' collective Clockwork Storybook, which included Bill Willingham, Chris Roberson, and Mark Finn. “Midwinter” is his first novel.

PLOT SUMMARY: Mauritane was a war hero, a captain in the Seelie Army. 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.

Unfortunately, it’s a suicide mission, which is why only Mauritane and the few prisoners he trusts enough to accompany him, would even dare attempt it: Raieve, beautiful and harsh, an emissary from a foreign land caught in the wrong place at the wrong time; Perrin Alt, Lord Silverdun, a nobleman imprisoned as a result of political intrigues so Byzantine that not even he understands them; and Brian Satterly, a human physicist, apprehended searching for the human victims of the faery changeling trade.

Meanwhile, dark forces are at work at home and abroad. In the Seelie kingdom, the reluctant soldier Purane-Es burns with hatred for Mauritane, and plots to steal the one thing that remains to him: his wife. Across the border, the black artist Hy Pezho courts the whim of Mab, offering a deadly weapon that could allow the Unseelie in their flying cities to crush Titania and her army once and for all.

With time running out, Mauritane and his companions must cross the deadly Contested Lands filled with dire magical fallout from wars past. They will confront mounted patrols, brigands, and a traitor in their midst. And before they reach their destination, as the Unseelie Armies led by Queen Mab approach the border, Mauritane must decide between his own freedom and the fate of the very land that has forsaken him...

CLASSIFICATION: Matthew Sturges describes “Midwinter” as “It's the Dirty Dozen with elves”, but personally I was reminded of a mostly traditional epic fantasy tale with a faerie bent—think Tolkien meets Joe Abercrombie meets Mark Chadbourn.

FORMAT/INFO: Page count is 345 pages divided over three Parts and unnumbered titled chapters. Narration is in the third-person via several POVs, both major and minor incuding Mauritane, Raieve, Lord Silverdun, Brian Satterly, Purane-Es, Lady Anne, Hy Pezho, etc. “Midwinter” is self-contained in that it concludes the main story, but there are unresolved threads that will be continued in the sequel, “The Office of Shadow”.

March 10, 2009 marks the North American Trade Paperback publication of “Midwinter” via
Pyr Books. The outstanding cover art is provided by Chris McGrath.

ROBERT’S ANALYSIS: I’ve never read anything by Matthew Sturges before, but I’ve been hearing a lot about the writer because of his comic book work including the Eisner-nominated Jack of Fables and House of Mystery. So when
Pyr introduced his debut novel, “Midwinter”, I was immediately intrigued.

The interesting thing about “Midwinter” is that it was written several years ago, long before Matthew Sturges got into comic books, and though the novel has been rewritten and revised, it’s definitely rough around the edges. Transitions between character point-of-views are sometimes sudden and jarring; the book lacks any sort of distinct identity, constantly switching between a fairy-tale like ambiance, to wry humor, and a darker edge; the story’s execution suffers occasionally, in particular the subplots involving a traitor, the attack on the floating City of Mab, and the love triangle between Mauritane, Raieve, and Lady Anne; and parts of the book just don’t work at all like an excerpt from “Conversations with the High Priest of Ulet, Conversation XXI”.

Fortunately, “Midwinter’s” good qualities far outweigh its negative ones. The novel is fast-paced and entertaining; characters are well-drawn and engaging—although they do lose some steam towards the end; prose is solid, particularly the descriptions of cities and landscapes; the story is interesting from its “Dirty Dozen” beginning to power plays/intrigue/war among the Seelie/Unseelie and learning the truth behind Titania’s secret mission; and the book is highly imaginative, blending traditional fantasy tropes (a quest, bandits, war) with fairy folklore such as Seelie/Unseelie kingdoms, Queen Mab, Titania, changelings, bugganes, weaknesses against cold iron, etc. Some of the novel’s more imaginative highlights include the Contested Lands with its dangerous shifting places; the thirteen Gifts some of which are Glamour, Elements and Insight; the existence of several worlds that border on each other like Earth, Faerie, Avalon, Nibiru, & Annwn; touched horses that can speak and think; the amusing message sprites; the aforementioned floating City of Mab; the legendary Thule Man, a devastating spellbomb that can destroy cities, and Arcadian faith.

In short, even though “Midwinter” has its share of problems, I really enjoyed the book and thought it was a fun, entertaining and imaginative new entry in the fantasy genre. I was also quite impressed with Matthew Sturges and believe he has the talent and creativity to make a name for himself outside of comics. Definitely looking forward to the sequel!

LIVIU’S ANALYSIS: Excellent debut though not your usual epic fantasy since it features magic, floating cities, long-lived elves, secondary-worlds as well as modern cars, shotguns, and 21st century humans—and it's not of the the sick/nerd/outcast human magically transported there to be “Sir Hero and save the world” variety either.

The one major human character is still secondary to the main heroes and more of an accidental observer than anything else.

Midwinter” also has quite a sf-nal feel, withh its Seelie and Unseelie countries coming off more like typical humanoid alien places from a sf Planetary Adventure, than a fantasy realm accessed by inter-dimensional rifts as is actually the case.

There are lots of subtle clues scattered throughout the novel and it's easy to miss them and be confused by the familiar-seeming, but always confounding expectations of the novel’s setting, though the action and main characters are straightforward.

Mauritane is the commoner hero, married into but never fully accepted by the nobility, loyal, courageous, rising on military merit to important positions. He was brought down by dastardly noble subordinates on faked evidence, and is now offered a chance to redeem himself by undertaking an “against all odds” mission. Raieve, the tough warrior girl, unjustly imprisoned because she killed the noble who tried to rape her, has a crush on the married Mauritane. Silverdun, the noble born hedonist who was imprisoned for his fortune by cunning relatives, discovers there is more to life than immediate sensual pleasure. Lastly, there is the 21st century human physicist, Slattery, who was arrested on a rescue mission in the Seelie lands gone wrong.

All are imprisoned for life in the impregnable fortress, Crere Sulace. Then one day, they are offered a seemingly impossible task in exchange for a pardon and on their journey we encounter peril, heart-break, a sense of wonder, and superb action and derring-do.

Midwinter” is a page-turner and a very exciting novel which managed to surprise me with unexpected twists and turns despite its seemingly straightforward plot.

Sometimes the unexpected elements thrown into the mix—and there are quite a few, but I do not want to spoil any major surprises—do not seem to quite fit with the world-building that has gone before, but that's just our expectations of a traditional epic fantasy confounded once more, and the novel hangs together very well in my opinion.

As for minor niggles, the main villain is a comic-opera one to a large extent, while the name of our hero Mauritane sounds like a Countess' name at the Sun King's Versailles Court instead of a tough, hardened warrior, and that incongruity stayed with me to the end of the novel detracting from its enjoyment. I did like some of the other names though including the two immortal Queens, Titania of the Seelie and Mab of the Unseelie, Hy-Pezho the darkly sounding master of arcane arts for Queen Mab, the Arcadian religion, and names of places like the City Emerald, Sylvan, and Avalon, and I thought the mixture of strange & familiar naming conventions worked well with the notable exception above.

Overall, “Midwinter” is the best pure genre debut of 09 so far for me and I highly recommend it...


Blodeuedd said...

That cover made me stop and watch, and I do think I will look out for this one

ediFanoB said...

Liked your review and added the book to my list.

Bantamdell twittered about your review:
bantamdell twitter

Also Jeff from Fantasy Book News & Reviews mentioned your review: Fantasy Book News & Reviews

Robert said...

It's terrific cover art isn't it Blodeuedd :) I'll probably try and get a print of it from the artist...

Thanks ediFanoB! The Twitter link is actually for "Blood & Ice", but that's okay ;) I know that Lou already twittered about the book...

aspiemom said...

It is unfortunate that I would be interested in a book simply by its gorgeous artwork.

I was glad that Blodeuedd said it.

Good review. It's a book that I'll try to get to.

Thanks for your hardwork and review.

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