The Bottom Line – Nothing particularly to revolutionize the genre, but still a well written, enjoyable book.
Winterbirth is the debut effort from Scottish author Brian Ruckley, the first part of his The Godless World trilogy. Check out his pretty comprehensive website here, and read an excerpt of the book here.
He describes a world where the Gods, sickened by the conflict between their created races, left long ago. The North is now controlled by Thanes, overseen by a High Thane. Its very reminiscent of the Scottish Highland clan system, no doubt drawn from Ruckley’s own Scottish heritage.
The Thanes have to contend not only with political manoeuvring amongst their own ranks and a High Thane who wishes to become a King, but also a vaguely elf-like race called the Kyrinin, now long past their former glory. The Kyrinin wander the land as nomads, and while they’re not at outright war with the Huanin (humans), there’s no love lost between the two races either.
On the other hand, the Thanes were at outright war with the Black Road, a religious spin-off (for want of a better term), who claim that the Gods will return to the world once it has been united under the creed of the Black Road. For the last thirty years things have been relatively quiet between the Thanes of the North and the Black Road, but that’s all about to change as the festival of Winterbirth approaches.
In the midst of all this are the na’kyrim, half human, half Kyrinin outcasts, some of whom are the only characters in Ruckley’s world able to wield magic, or ‘The Shared’ as he calls it. Aeglyss, a particularly powerful na’kyrim, seeks to manipulate both the Black Road and one of the Kyrinin tribes for his own ends, even as he searches for a way to gain full control of his abilities.
The book does a good job of setting up the world and the plotlines. The main protagonist is a youth called Orisian, cousin to the heir of the Lannis-Haig Thane, although there are plenty of other characters of interest.
The action and the magic are well written. There are no massive feats of deus ex machina here, and there are no invincible swordsmen; the characters really do come across as ordinary (within reason) people struggling to do their best to stay alive.
Ruckley takes the route of most modern fantasy these days in blurring the distinctions between good and evil. Even Aeglyss, who looks to become the main bad guy of the series, is shown through most of the book as little more than child-like in some ways, pathetica lly eager to fit in and be accepted despite the frightening power he wields.
The politics are almost overdone in the book – each faction has its own share of infighting. It hasn’t quite gotten to Robert Jordan’s level of ridiculous intricacy (is he ever gonna be able to wrap up all/most/any of those outstanding plotlines in one single book?!!) but there is plenty here for those who like a hint of real world complexity in their fantasy novels.
Despite all the things it does well, there’s nothing really new here. We’ve seen all of this before, and complex multiple POV books seem to be becoming the standard for epic fantasy these days.
If you can get past that though, Winterbirth is a good solid debut, worth checking out for fans of epic fantasy. I know I’ll be picking up the second in the series.