My press release for Matthew Sturges’s Midwinter brags, courtesy of Bill Willingham, of the novel’s prose as “Guy Gavriel Kay crossed with the audacity of Zelazny at his best.” While I am not acquainted with Mr. Willingham or his reading tastes, I have read both Kay and Zelazny, adoring one while bouncing off the other; and I offer my unequivocal disagreement on this point.
Therein lies my chief problem with Midwinter. It lives next door to some truly great works, but it never matches those neighbors’ elegance or charisma. To be fair, the first two pages do sing with an echo of Kay’s famous lyricality; the protagonist, Mauritaine, does remind me to an extent of Corwin. But for every lyrical passage, there are nine others that just clunk along; and unlike Zelazny (who must be acknowledged for his skill, even if I’m not a visceral fan), the characters never quite transcend standard tropes.
Winter comes to the land of the Fae only once in a hundred years. This time, Midwinter, is a dark season leavened only by a physical and emotional rebirth for the Seelie at Firstcome. This Midwinter, however, is different; this time, exiled war hero Mauritaine is secretly sent by Regina Titania on a suicide mission. As accompaniment, he chooses five trusted (and untrusted) companions: loyal lieutenant Honeywell, beautiful Raieve from the foreign land of Avalon, unfortunate nobleman Lord Silverdun, human physicist Brian Satterly, and former prison guard Gray Mave. One can guess all too clearly where the tale will lead, as Mauritaine and his company cross the shifting Contested Lands to combat the Unseelie Army and its ruler, Queen Mab, until the tale finally builds to a thrilling conclusion. Yawn.
Midwinter is a tightly-plotted book, sweepingly cinematic but never ignoring the expository details—to a fault at times, as I found the head-hopping omniscient narrator somewhat distracting. It compares more closely to George R.R. Martin, I think, than either Kay or Zelazny; yet it lacks the deep empathy that Martin evokes for so many characters of his huge cast. So far as quest fantasy goes, Sturges has succeeded, and he may well become a mainstream success. However, I have never been much of a fan of epic fantasy for the same reasons I’m not much of a fan of Midwinter: characterization is inevitably de-emphasized in favor of plot and setting. Mediocre characters may be tolerated if other factors mitigate—consistently melodic prose, a unique conceit, or just compelling overall engagement in the reading experience—all of which, unfortunately, Sturges fails to provide. I enjoyed reading the novel and I continued flipping pages as the suspense built up, but my engagement never exceeded that artificial suspense. I didn’t care if Mauritaine died; I liked Raieve but rolled my eyes at the (again) inevitable romantic conflict. Plot is by far Sturges’s strongest skill, perhaps deriving from his extensive comic book experience. With time and more novel experience, his prose also has the potential for much, much more—if only the entire novel flowed as beautifully as the pseudo-prologue “Part One”:
“Winter comes to the land only once in a hundred years. When it comes, the always-blossoming cherry trees close their petals and turn away from the chill wind. The animals of the forest come down from their trees and rocks and burrow deep into the ground for warmth. The Channel Sea grows angry and gray. The sun shines less brightly, hiding its face behind clouds rough as granite. When the River Ebe freezes over and a man can walk from Colthorn to Miday over the ice, then Midwinter has officially begun.” (9)
I would next quote a lesser passage, but stilted rhythm is rather more difficult to capture succinctly. The characters never come to life, content instead to walk their roles as ghostly outlines. Worldbuilding is unimpressive, and more importantly, unoriginal. For example, the persecuted Arcadian religion is quite baldly pseudo-Christianity. I spent the book hoping that Titania and Mab would deepen into real people, because they offered so much potential for moral ambiguity; but no, the Virtuous Seelie Queen and the Evil Unseelie Queen ultimately keep their proper places.
So goes Midwinter: after all the countryside romping and climactic battles, everyone takes his or her proper place. The cover, depicting Mauritaine with a wicked sword shielding delicate (though also sword-wielding) Raieve, accurately represents a tale of harrowing adventures in a rugged hero’s quest against Evil(TM). For many, a book need only provide entertainment between Point A and Point B, and those people will enjoy Matthew Sturges’s novel. For me, who prefers the unexpected and ambiguous, Midwinter left me shrugging my shoulders in confused discontent.