Midwinter: Strange hodgepodge

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book review Matthew Sturges MidwinterMidwinter by Matthew Sturges

I was attracted to Midwinter because of the gorgeous cover art (by Chris McGrath) and the publisher’s blurb. This sounds like my kind of story. Unfortunately, this novel didn’t deliver what I was looking for, but it had so much potential that I hold out hope for future efforts from Matthew Sturges.

Midwinter starts out well. The prose is pleasant — perfectly readable and without any pretensions. Usually this is the first place an author will lose me, but Mr. Sturges didn’t.

The main characters, especially Mauritane, Silverdun, Satterly, and Raieve, are intriguing and I was fully expecting to be drawn into their lives. However, I never was. Part of the problem was the third-person point of view that shifted unexpectedly. It never settled down long enough to examine the hearts of the key players. Some of the secondary characters such as Lady Anne, Queen Mab, Hy Pezho, and Purane-Es were given excellent characterization, so I know that Mr. Sturges is capable. But, the main characters never opened up for me, so I felt like an outsider during their quest.

I also never quite felt the setting. It’s midwinter and our heroes are traveling, eating, sleeping, and fighting outdoors in the snow, but I never felt cold. Most of the characters are fae and we are several times told how different they are from humans, but we are never shown how they are different (except that toward the end of the book we’re told that they are drained by cold iron, and they have funny ears).

There are some flashes of imaginative brilliance (I loved the shifting areas in the Contested Lands, and the message sprites were hilarious), but there are also a lot of elements that just seem weirdly cobbled together (e.g., the philosophy discussions, the humans stuck in faery, the changeling trade, Avalon, Sylvan, the Arcadian religion, the Thule Man, cars and rebar, Mab’s flying city, the prophecy). I may be completely wrong about this, but I have noticed in other new novelists a tendency to throw in a bunch of disparate ideas — as if the author had been collecting these fancies for years and then assembled them all in the first novel. Or, sometimes perhaps they do this because these elements came up during their research and they feel the need to include them. I am not accusing Mr. Sturges of either of these motivations, but that’s just what it felt like. I found myself often saying “huh? Where did that come from? … Where’s the kitchen sink?” I am certainly not asking for my fantasy to be straight-up medieval-style epic, but this was just confusing.

So, basically it was the lack of characterization of the heroes and the strange hodgepodge that kept me from enjoying Midwinter as much as I thought I would. I do, however, have high hopes for Matthew Sturges and I would not refuse to read a different story in another setting.

~Kat Hooper


fantasy book review Matthew Sturges MidwinterWinter only comes once every hundred years to the land of the Fae, and it brings with it a secret vital to those in power. As snow storms blanket the land, the disgraced war-hero Mauritane and a few fellow inmates of a remote prison are given a chance for freedom and redemption. Survive a suicide mission commanded by the queen, and all will be forgiven.

In Matthew Sturges’s own words, Midwinter is “The Dirty Dozen with elves.” While that theme is well used across genres, it’s one of my favorites because when it’s done right it makes for great story-telling. So, I really expected to like this novel.

Midwinter started out strong. Immediately following the prologue, there’s an awesome prison fight. But from that point on, the rest of the story was like being in a thick fog. Details are vague. There’s nothing that seems particularly elfish about the elves. Winter is supposed to play such a big part, but I kept forgetting it was even cold. The pace alternates between moving too fast and getting side-tracked down boring and ill-fitting tangents.

Magic is so infused into this world that it warps natural order and has become part of almost all of the denizens. It’s there when you need a light, when you want to give your horse the ability to talk, or when ya just want to make yourself look more fashionable, but for reasons never really explained, it may or may not be useable in a tight spot.

One of the important elements of Midwinter is a relationship between our real world and this land of the Fae. I tend to like having a link to our Earth in a fantasy story, but I found the introduction of our modern technology into this setting to be jarring — almost laughable. Hey, I think a ‘71 Pontiac Lemans is one of the coolest cars of all time too, but that doesn’t mean I want to find one in this sort of fantasy novel.

I’ll readily admit that maybe I just didn’t “get-it.” If that’s the case, it’s because by the time I got to the last third of the book, I was too bored to even care anymore. For the Dirty Dozen theme to work, you have to make the reader care about the characters. There are some truly interesting characters in Midwinter, they just needed more development. Sturges is a talented author and has a successful career writing comics. But Midwinter needed to be fleshed out more in order to compensate for not having any illustrations.

~Greg Hersom


fantasy book review Matthew Sturges MidwinterI checked out Midwinter, the debut novel of comic book writer Matthew Sturges, despite the lukewarm feelings of my fellow reviewers. I am, however, a sucker for stories in which small groups of skilled swordsmen or thieves brave nigh-impossible odds. As noted, this particular story is set in the parallel world of Faerie and centers on the efforts of secretly paroled prisoners, led by the ultra-competent Mauritane, to recover something as quickly as possible for Queen Titania during the rare season of Midwinter.

For better or worse, I largely agree with Kat and Greg’s assessment of the book. Some particular notes:

  • Despite it being Midwinter, and despite ongoing references to the relatively cold weather, it was possible to forget that the cold mattered. Certainly, the characters never seemed hindered by it, and their travels actually take them through warm badlands and a city untouched by the cold.
  • A tremendous number of elements are incorporated into a book of 344 lean pages (e.g. parallel worlds; the changeling trade; time warps; religious conflict; civil war; a prophecy; and of course intrusion of humans and human technology into the Fae world). None of these was bad by itself, but the resulting combination created an odd flavor or sense of clutter.
  • The plot pacing was uneven (e.g. a later scene with a displaced human clan was far too long), especially when combined with the numerous viewpoint shifts and the disparate story elements. It seemed odd, for example, to leave the questing party for the viewpoint of Mauritane’s wife, the Lady Anne, who is tangential at most. (I also wondered how Fae naming customs can include both Anne and Purane-Es, who isn’t some kind of exotic dessert but Mauritane’s conniving rival).
  • The writing is adequate, usually plain and straightforward. Some of the dialogue was stilted, though, particularly if read aloud; and the dialogue attribution was often redundant. (“Blah blah,” John interrupted — if John were interrupting someone, or from p. 294: “‘How are all five of us going to fit in that thing?’ asked Raieve, uncertain.”) Also, there were instances where the viewpoint or scene changed without the presence of a scene-break icon, forcing a double-take. (On p. 148, the reader is in a street with a tax collector in one paragraph but then, in the next, with a sorcerer in the palace of Queen Mab, Titania’s rival.)
  • Miscellaneous issues that seemed to undermine confidence in the story:
    • Iron does weaken the fae characters, but this isn’t mentioned until 200+ pages in. If this is mentioned before, I missed it and apologize, but it seemed that the party was using steel (and thus iron) weapons until the issue was raised. In retrospect, their weapons were probably hardened silver, the existence of which is noted later, but as it was, the fae’s iron vulnerability seemed sudden and confusing.
    • Kerosene plays an important role in the plot and is available because the fae use it (or some fae use it?) to fuel torches. However, it seemed odd that the magic-using fae, who can create witchlights for illumination, would bother with kerosene at all. As it was, its presence in the tale seemed odd and, ultimately, provided a feeling of deus ex machina.
    • The back cover misspells Mauritane’s name.
    • In hindsight, I wasn’t sure the plot made sense. If you want to know why, highlight the following spoiler: The plot hinges on Titania getting access to a noble girl — but knowing that she’ll need one, and knowing that she has 99+ years between Midwinters, why does Titania still risk all on a band of outcasts? Why not send an elite unit of guardsmen and magicians? Why not order the girl’s family to come to court under some pretense and meet them halfway or provide an escort? Why not start the tradition of a fabulous Midwinter ball and order all noble girls to appear before the queen in some sham ritual? Certainly, the outcasts-on-a-quest trope is a compelling and fun one, but it didn’t seem to make much sense from the perspective of a Faerie Queen with significant amounts of power and time. [END SPOILER]

Overall, Midwinter was an easily readable book that deserves credit for setting a decent sword-and-sorcery tale in Faerie — and giving Faerie sufficient complexity. Unfortunately, the execution of this core idea often stumbled under the weight of too many, or too many imperfectly included, associated ideas; and the result is not likely to appeal to a particularly broad audience. Recommended as a library loan for fans of sword & sorcery or all things Fae.

~Rob Rhodes

Midwinter — (2009) Publisher: Winter only comes to the land once in a hundred years. But the snow covers ancient secrets: secrets that could topple a kingdom. Mauritaine was a war hero, a Captain in the Seelie Army. Then he was accused of treason and sentenced to life without parole at Crere Sulace, a dark and ancient prison in the mountains, far from the City Emerald. But now the Seelie Queen — Regina Titania herself — has offered him one last chance to redeem himself, an opportunity to regain his freedom and his honor. Unfortunately, it’s a suicide mission, which is why only Mauritaine and the few prisoners he trusts enough to accompany him, would even dare attempt it. Raieve, beautiful and harsh, an emissary from a foreign land caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Perrin Alt, Lord Silverdun, a nobleman imprisoned as a result of political intrigues so Byzantine that not even he understands them. Brian Satterly, a human physicist, apprehended searching for the human victims of the faery changeling trade. Meanwhile, dark forces are at work at home and abroad. In the Seelie kingdom, the reluctant soldier Purane-Es burns with hatred for Mauritaine, and plots to steal from him the one thing that remains to him: his wife. Across the border, the black artist Hy Pezho courts the whim of Mab, offering a deadly weapon that could allow the Unseelie in their flying cities to crush Titania and her army once and for all. With time running out, Mauritaine and his companions must cross the deadly Contested Lands filled with dire magical fallout from wars past. They will confront mounted patrols, brigands, and a traitor in their midst. And before they reach their destination, as the Unseelie Armies led by Queen Mab approach the border, Mauritaine must decide between his own freedom and the fate of the very land that has forsaken him.

Matthew Sturges Midwinter fantasy book reviews The Office of ShadowMatthew Sturges Midwinter fantasy book reviews The Office of Shadow


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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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GREG HERSOM’S (on FanLit's staff January 2008 -- September 2012) addiction began with his first Superboy comic at age four. He moved on to the hard-stuff in his early teens after acquiring all of Burroughs’s Tarzan books and the controversial L. Sprague de Camp & Carter edited Conan series. His favorite all time author is Robert E. Howard. Greg also admits that he’s a sucker for a well-illustrated cover — the likes of a Frazetta or a Royo. Greg live with his wife, son, and daughter in a small house owned by a dog and two cats in a Charlotte, NC suburb. He retired from FanLit in Septermber 2012 after 4.5 years of faithful service but he still sends us a review every once in a while.

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ROB RHODES was graduated from The University of the South and The Tulane University School of Law and currently works as a government attorney. He has published several short stories and is a co-author of the essay “Sword and Sorcery Fiction,” published in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading. In 2008, Rob was named a Finalist in The L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. Rob retired from FanLit in September 2010 after more than 3 years at FanLit. He still reviews books and conducts interviews for us occasionally. You can read his latest news at Rob's blog.

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