Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Review: Winterbirth by Brian Ruckley

Winterbirth by Brian Ruckley is the fist entry in a new epic fantasy trilogy and the new Orbit US imprint’s debut novel. The second book of The Godless World, Bloodheir, is due out next year. Fans of epic fantasy should be pleased.

It’s a land long abandoned by the gods after humans and the elf-like Kyrinin joined forces to exterminate a vicious race of shape-shifters and the later inevitable war between humans and Kyrinin. The ‘bloods’ (read clans) of the north are allied in a kingship in all but name and hundreds of years ago a radical religious sect within the clans known as the Black Road was exiled at the tip of a bloody sword to the untamed lands of the far north. Now the Lannis-Blood guards the pass to the lands of the Black Road and the distant Thane of Thanes rules with an iron first and eye toward expansion in the rich southern kingdoms.

Political maneuvering occurs, the Black Road invades, and clans of the Kyrinin play varying roles in this standard medieval setting. Ruling Thanes and family are slaughtered leaving surviving bloods on the run and playing a central role are the few human-Kyrinin hybrids, despised by both races, with access to an internal power denied to humans and Kyrinin alike.

Winterbirth is a great example of what has become a common standard in epic fantasy – a dark world with an overall realistic feel in spite of the presence of other species and some form of magic with influence from northern European pre-industrial history. Perhaps that’s just the long way of saying that Winterbirth offers nothing new or even fresh. However, this does not mean that Winterbirth is bad or not worthwhile, serviceable is the word that immediately comes to mind. Or to put in another way, if you like this type of epic fantasy, then you should like Winterbirth. Alternatively, if you don’t care for this type of story, then Winterbirth is probably not for you.

The strongest historical inspiration present is Scottish, which is no surprise since Brian Ruckley is Scottish. While I’d not go as far to consider this approach new or fresh, it is an approach that I found to be interesting - perhaps due to my Scottish surname and roots or the Celtic-sheik that seems to pervade so much these days. Anyway, Ruckley skillfully brings this Scottish feeling forward and through to the book to the reader.

Told with a shifting limited third person narrative, the focus is on a few individuals. Characterization is rendered well rather than outstanding – it was enough to make me appropriately curious and anxious to know what will happen next, but not enough to make me truly feel for the characters. But a solid foundation has been built for some significant and interesting character growth as the series continues.

One aspect that I found lacking is presentation of the religious views of the Black Road. The deep-seated religious fundamentalism and desire for vengeance of the past are at the heart of these people, yet the basic beliefs as presented fall flat. This is the underlying motivation for some of the most significant actions taken in this novel and really should be developed more fully. The contrast with the Black Road’s relative fanaticism with the secularism of the Bloods to the south and the more natural feeling worship of death of the Kyrinin is one I hope to see more developed.

Winterbirth is another solid entry into the epic fantasy world. While it offers nothing new, it does provide a well-enough written and interesting story that fans of epic fantasy should enjoy. For me it was serviceable and not outstanding in either a good or bad way – 6.5-7/10.

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