Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Book review: Winterbirth

By Brian Ruckley
(Orbit 2007)

With the sad passing of fantasy titan David Gemmell, a large void was left in the field of British fantasy. With America and Canada producing so many leading lights in fantasy literature, which new British authors are ready to step into the light and raise the flag for British fantasy? One of the first genuine contenders is Brian Ruckley with his debut novel Winterbirth.

Ruckley’s novel focuses on the centuries-old feud between the Bloods of the Black Road and the Lannis-Haig Bloods. After years of apparent peace, the Bloods of the Black Road, for so long exiled in the icy wastes beyond the Vale of Stones, are on the move south. The Lannis-Haig Bloods need to unite in order to oppose them, however grudges amongst the various thanes threatens to seriously undermine their efforts. As the shadow of war descends, a young man by the name of Orisian flees the wreckage of his former life and takes his first steps towards his destiny.

The above overview of the story might seem fairly standard; after all, the fantasy genre is littered with tales of war and young boys pursuing their destinies. In truth, Ruckley doesn’t stray too far from the standard formula. The result is a plot that is fairly pedestrian, with few twists or surprises. You get the impression that Ruckley created his world and its history first, before then working out a plot that links all of the places and people together.

Still, the world of Winterbirth does make up somewhat for the plot’s deficiencies. Ruckley has created a harsh, bitter world where the gods have left long before, leaving mankind to fend for itself. The departure of the gods is touched upon in the brief preface, which comes across as a rather awkward info dump. The idea, however, of the gods abandoning the world due to the genocide committed by the Huanin (humans) and Kyrinin against the Wherein race is intriguing, and the decision to include inhuman races adds diversity.

The world itself boasts a Scottish influence, both in the ruggedness of the landscape and the names of the people and places. Location names such as Tanwrye and Car Criagar, and those of characters such as Gryvan oc Haig and Aertan oc Taral-Haig add real atmosphere and realism to the world. The religious background and history of the clans are detailed and absorbing, while the ‘Shared’ (the closest Winterbirth gets to any sort of magic system) is well-devised in that only the na’kyrim - those born out of the union of Huanin and Kyrinin - are able to draw upon the supernatural power, and even then it can have unpredictable results.

Ruckley’s writing is crisp and his descriptive prose paints a vivid picture of the bleak world of Winterbirth. It does however lack the humour and witticism of other new authors, such as Lynch and Abercrombie. Then again, Winterbirth is a much darker and grittier book than those of Ruckley’s fellow authors and the more serious tones of his writing match the sombre events of the book. Nonetheless there are moments where a touch of humour may have provided some relief from the relentless graveness of the novel.

Winterbirth’s main failings however lie with the plot and characters. As mentioned earlier, the plot is fairly linear with few real surprises and some subplots, such as Osirian’s journey, do drag in parts. You very much get the feeling that things are being set up nicely for the sequel, which bodes well for the next book but doesn’t really do Winterbirth any favours.

More significantly, the characters perhaps do not do the world and history justice. There are one or two intriguing figures, such as the serpentine Wain and the unpredictable Aeglyss, who seems unable to control the growing power of the Shared within him, but otherwise none really stand out. Osirian is likeable enough and while the reader can sympathise with his predicament, he is never really that engaging in his role as the main hero.

The Kyrinin race is also a disappointment and to some extent suffer from the ‘elves-in-everything-but-name’ syndrome. The most interesting race, the Wherein (some sort of wolf-like beings) sadly do not even make an appearance in the novel, having been exterminated long before the time in which the novel is set.

Another gripe, albeit a minor one, is in the names: while they do help add some atmosphere and depth to the people and places, at the same time they can be confusing. There are times when a character was mentioned and I’d have trouble remembering who exactly they were (although admittedly the character list at the back of the book does help).

All in all Winterbirth feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. Ruckley has developed a rich history and clearly-defined world, but the pedestrian plot and hit-and-miss characters ultimately let it down. Still, there is real promise here and I sincerely hope that the sequel delivers a more satisfying tale.


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