Ever since I finished Holly Black's The Folk of the Air series, I've been dying to get my hands on other mature YA fantasy books that capture that same breathless atmosphere of sensuality, back-stabbing, and court intrigue. So many authors try for this vibe, but miss-- hard-- because they either aren't good enough writers to fully sell the worlds they're building, or because they try to dumb everything down to be inoffensive and uncontroversial as possible, leading to books that feel pandering and sanitized.
I received an ARC of Bartlett's other book, WE RULE THE NIGHT, earlier this year, which was an amazing steampunk fantasy story about female fighter pilots in the midst of a war. Where WE RULE THE NIGHT was a book about female hot-heads and fiery blazes, THE WINTER DUKE is all ice. Set in a fantasy world split into two major zones-- Kylma Above and Kylma Below-- the heroine, Ekata, lives with her cut-throat family in a palace made of ice where it's always winter.
Everything goes terribly wrong on the evening of her brother's "brideshow," the ceremony where he chooses his future wife. Ekata's whole family is struck by a mysterious sleeping sickness, leaving her in charge of the family's duchy. Ekata is considered the bookish, weak one in her family and is ill-equipped to handle being the Grand Duke, or all of the people attempting to manipulate and use her. In order to escape marriage to one such odious person, Ekata elopes with one of her brother's would be brides, a warrior from a lesser kingdom named Inkar, and with her new wife and a small circle of trusted advisors, Ekata tries to navigate not just her new responsibilities but also figure out who hurt her family-- and whether she might be next-- while also trying to keep her entire kingdom from falling into chaos, anarchy, or upheaval.
So, yeah, it's a trip.
There was so much about this book that I loved so much. First, obviously, the world-building. Kylma Above is so cold and inhospitable, and so are the people who live in it. The ice roses and the hilarious dishes (pickled shark!) really added so much depth to the environment, and allows you, the reader, to become fully immersed. I also really loved Kylma Below, which is a water world home to magic and mermaids and beasts of the deep. I kind of pictured it as being a cross between the Aquas level from Starfox 64 (amazing video game if you haven't played it) and Holly Black's Undersea. It was so good.
Second, the romance between Inkar and Ekata. This is an F/F fantasy novel with an arranged marriage, slow-burn romance and that is basically my favorite thing ever. I talked about my sincere love for that trope in another recent review of a fantasy novel-- but, again, not a lot of authors can carry that off because it requires a really solid understanding of characterization. Bartlett did such an amazing job and it was great to see these two girls slowly begin to relax around one another and find intimacy in a kingdom that saw such closeness as weakness.
Third, the plotting was really good. When you think about it, it's kind of like a challenge-for-the-crown trope meets a grandiose parlor-murder-mystery trope. It works really well. I liked seeing Ekata go through all of her challenges to hold on to her title while also trying to solve the greater mystery. In the beginning she was so uncertain and awkward in her role, and even though she didn't exactly become Cersei Lannister by the end of the book, it was amazing to see her grow into her confidence and apply her knowledge to finding out who the evil-doers were, while also getting better at her job.
I also really appreciated a world where LGBT+ people are fully incorporated and depicted as being the norm. The "Duke" title is unisex and does not change depending on who inherits. The brideshows include men and women and it seems that Ekata's brother likes both, whereas she seems to prefer women. There's a main character who is non-binary, and no homophobic or misogynistic slurs are hurled around; this is a society that is dark and cut-throat but doesn't embrace the usual misogynistic and sexist pseudo-Medieval setting that so many popular fantasy novels are partial to.
If I had one qualm, it was that the ending was a tiny bit disappointing for me. But just a tiny bit.
Claire Eliza Bartlett is fast becoming one of my all-time favorite authors. Both her books have wrested five stars from me and I'm notoriously stingy with them. I hope she writes more fantasy novels, because she's incredibly good at them, and while I roll my eyes at the need for authors to turn all of their books into series, both of her novels are standalones and I desperately wish they were not, so there's that. I can't wait to see what else she writes and will be crossing my fingers for more court intrigue and kick-butt female protagonists, because I think we can all agree we need more of those.
Also, that cover is DELICIOUS. I want to eat it.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!
4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars