Pyr (345 pages, Trade Paperback, March 2009, $15.98)
Reviewed by Bill Ward
Midwinter is the debut novel from comics writer Matthew Sturges, and it has elves in it. In fact, it’s all about elves, taking place as it does in the land of faerie. But these elves, dear reader, are not your Daddy’s elves — or, more to the point, they are not the sort of derivative elves that tend to find their way into the fiction of writers who have trouble thinking outside their last D&D campaign. Midwinter’s Fae, in all their variety, are much more reminiscent of the Sidhe of Celtic myth that is clearly Sturges’ jumping off point, perhaps with a bit of Tolkien and Moorcock thrown in for good measure. Those who can’t stand heavily derivative fantasy need not worry — in fact, it’s Sturges’ willingness to play with tropes and inject his tale with the unexpected that is the main attraction of his world.
For an example of one of those ‘sit up on the edge of your seat and take notice’ turns, we have an event that occurs early in the book. The premise of the quest is established quickly, and this ‘dirty dozen with elves,’ as Sturges has described the book, kicks off in much the expected direction. We are introduced to disgraced Guard Captain Mauritane, in prison, as well as his despised enemy — a Fae who conspired to bring him down in the first place. The quest is laid out (though not explained — the revelation of the true purpose of the quest isn’t provided until the end), and Mauritane’s team of fellow prisoners assembled. But just when you think the direction of things is all mapped out, Mauritane, seemingly as an aside, ends up traveling back in time (!) and participating in an episode the significance of which is only shown later. Throughout the novel Sturges shows a willingness to make a hard right without taking his foot of the gas — leaving some rubber on the road and, just maybe, making a few white-knuckled passengers uncomfortable — in a way that reminded me of the more daring and fluid fantasies of the past.
Indeed, the name that comes to mind most in this context would be Roger Zelazny, and Sturges shares more than a few traits with that master of headlong invention. The world of Midwinter is a parallel world to our own and to other worlds we recognize through our own myths (such as Avalon, from which hails one of Mauritane’s companions), and travel between the two is rare but possible. This leads to further unexpected elements, and even allows for a man from our own Earth — a physicist no less — to play a crucial role in Mauritane’s quest. Stodgier fans of fantasy who do not like chocolate in their peanut butter may not appreciate SFnal or real world elements cropping up in their fantasy — but for those of us that grew up loving authors like Zelazny, or indeed any other writers that used parallel worlds as more than a mere framing mechanism, the hearkening back to a time of greater creativity and freedom will be a breath of fresh air.
Midwinter is so-called because, once every 100 years, the world of Faerie is plunged into a fierce winter, and the land lies dead. It is apparent but not explained that Mauritane’s quest is somehow connected to this event, and the answer, when it comes, is satisfying and wholly in keeping with tradition. There is also a war going on as the two factions of Fae battle for the domination of the land, and Queen Mab and her floating city are a major obstacle to Mauritane’s success. But not all of the bumps on the road of this episodic quest are of the kind that can be smoothed over with swordplay — though Sturges does manage to buckle some swash like an old pro — and it is these more inventive encounters, such as one that leaves one member of the group with a new face, and another that finds Mauritane and company hostage to a group of human refugees from our own world, that really stand out and distinguish the book as something other than standard fantasy fare.
I cannot say that Midwinter is not without a few problems, and a few rough spots in which the clarity of events and situations, but the overall pace and inventiveness insure that readers will keep turning the pages none-the-less. So too, the thematic weight of the wintry landscape could have been enlarged upon, and Midwinter certainly did not have me hunting for a blanket and a hot water bottle in the way that Robert Low’s teeth-chatteringly effective The White Raven did. But these are minor quibbles of the sort that one makes when one appreciates a work enough to care enough to dive in, and Midwinter is certainly worth the plunge for readers that like their adventure fantastical, and their fantasy — and fantasy authors — truly adventurous.