Book Reviews · Fantasy

The Winter Duke by Claire Eliza Bartlett

Once Ekata’s brother is finally named heir to the dukedom of Kylma Above, nothing will keep her at home with her murderous family – not even Kylma Below, a mesmerizing underwater kingdom that provides her family with magic. But then they fall under a strange, incurable sleeping sickness, and in the space of a single night, Ekata inherits the title of duke, her brother’s captivating warrior bride, and all the dangers of the throne.

Thank you to NetGalley for providing an early reading copy in exchange for an honest review!

This book has such an interesting concept I had to pick it up as soon as I read the blurb! It is, I believe, in the YA/teen category, as the main character is 16 and the story follows a fairly traditional YA structure, but any adult fantasy fan would also enjoy it.

Setting

Ekata Avenko is one of the thirteen children of the Duke of Kylma Above, a small duchy in the freezing north. Despite it being inhospitable, it holds great political power, as it is the only trader of magic, which it gains through its unique relationship to Kylma below, a city of fishpeople beneath the lake’s surface. Only the duke knows the secret to wielding the magic, so that all his children are constantly trying to assassinate each other in order to become duke and gain that secret. At the time in which the story is set, political tension is high, with some ministers wanting to form a parliament to distribute the power held by the duke, and other kingdoms turning their eyes on Kylma Above in the hopes of annexing it and gaining access to its magic.

The Plot

The story starts with a brideshow, in which the eldest son of the Duke must choose a partner out of the delegates sent from other countries. Ekata, the main character and narrator, wants nothing to do with her family, and knows that after the brideshow she will be able to go south and study at a university. Unfortunately, that night she wakes to discover that she is the only member of her family that has not fallen into a strange sleep-like illness, and is now the duke of Kylma Above. She is thrown into her father’s politics and has to learn to deal with all his ministers and their agendas, as well as Sigis, her foster brother, who has his eye on the throne and on Ekata herself.

My thoughts

This book is full of potential, but I found the execution of it to be a bit lacking. I really loved the complexity of the politics, as it felt very realistic, but because the main character didn’t understand a lot of it, it is dismissed as secondary, even though it is the driving force of the plot. The book either needed to be longer to account for Ekata’s learning of politics – the story only takes place over 6 days, and for five of them she seems clueless and then suddenly finds a solution on the last one as if she were a master strategist – or there needed to be less forces at play. The plot also doesn’t advance much until the last two chapters, with Ekata going in circles trying to discover what kind of ruler she should be, who her allies are, and how to unlock the secret to magic.

The magic itself also left me confused; in theory it’s a fascinating system, and I would have loved to have it slowly unravel throughout the story, but that doesn’t really happen. Then there is the part played by Kylma Below; though they are the magic suppliers and Ekata has been curious and fascinated by their kingdom since the beginning, they only seem to crop up when it’s convenient to the narrative. It all becomes very convoluted and feels quite claustrophobic.

What I did really love was the fact that LGBTQ+ characters are incorporated into the universe without standing out as weird; there are several non-binary characters, and the people presented at the brideshow are both men and women. Inkar, the girl Ekata chooses as her wife was probably my favourite character, but I could tell that she was one of the author’s favourites too, because she seems to lack flaws and at times feels somewhat two-dimensional. The romance, like the politics, could have used a bit more time and space to develop, even if this meant setting the story over a longer period of time, rather than describing almost every minute of Ekata’s days and nights.

Overall, it was a nice read and a clever idea for a setting, but I just wish I could have seen more of it and that the story hadn’t got lost a bit in the middle the way it did. As far as I know, this is a standalone novel, but if there were ever a sequel, I would definitely read it to see how it develops.

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