Winter Be My Shield, by Jo Spurrier, was nominated for an Aurealis Award for best fantasy novel in 2012, in her home country of Australia, and Spurrier herself was nominated for a Ditmar. While the roughly 30 reviews on Amazon are mixed, there are plenty of enthusiastic 5-star ones. All of this is to say that many people like this book more than I do. You’ve read my reviews, you know my taste, so be guided by that.
Winter Be My Shield is Book One in the CHILDREN OF THE BLACK SUN series. It was printed in the US in 2013. This second-world fantasy follows a fugitive mage named Sierra as she attempts to escape from the blood-mage Kell, who serves the Mesentreian king. Sierra’s magic draws power from the pain of others. So does Kell’s. More than she fears the sadistic Kell, Sierra fears his powerful apprentice, Rasten, who is chasing her.
Sierra falls in with the rebel prince Cam and his foster brother Isidro, who was captured and tortured by Kell and Rasten, and has a badly damaged arm as a result. Cam and Isidro have fled into Ricalan, in the north, where various clans live. The clans hope that the two warring empires of Mesentreia and Akharia will overlook them. That hope is misplaced.
Sierra is at as much risk among the clans as she is with Kell and Rasten, because in this nation, anyone with magical power is executed. When we see Rasten torturing and sacrificing his own people in order to draw power, we understand why. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that there is more to Sierra’s power than just feeding off the pain of others, but with so many people trying to kill her, and winter itself making life hard, we question whether she and Isidro will live to uncover the truth of the power of the mages.
There was quite a bit to like in book one. Here’s a brief list:
The magical system: While the Mesentreians have corrupted the blood-magic power, there is far more to it than Sierra realizes, and there are different varieties of magic. We get hints of them near the end and they will probably be explained more in later books. Near the end of Winter Be My Shield, in an elaborate cave complex, there is a visual spell that delighted me.
The political world: Fans of A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE might like the elaborate political structure here, with two warring empires, and clans who make and break alliances all in the name of cultural, political and physical survival. Not unlike George R.R. Martin’s work, no one in Winter be My Shield can be counted on to keep their word or honor a bargain; no one can be trusted. This is meant to heighten suspense. Spurrier gives us a world where strong queens are not unusual, which is a nice touch.
Interesting main characters: The trio of Sierra, Isidro and Rasten are interesting, and the push-pull of a love triangle blended with an I-want-to-kill-you triangle drives up the stakes, and the tension, whenever any two of these three are interacting.
Good winter-building: Yes, I said “winter-building.” While physical descriptions of the geography are sparse and a little vague, Spurrier spends a lot of time showing us the group camping in a harsh winter environment. It’s well done and the imagination spent on the tools and improvements people would make, like the portable stoves, are good.
I didn’t like the structure of Winter be My Shield or the pacing. It’s clear from early on that Isidro and Sierra are going to be a couple, but the story veers into their relationship with little or no set-up. The Akharians, who enslave others, don’t really show up until page 300 of a 400-page book. The Akharians know a lot about magic. It turns out much of the plot revolves around the legend of a lost trove of magic books, and this part of the story gets cooking, again, about page 300. Up until then, we’ve followed the minute details of Cam, Isidro and Sierra camping in the snow, engaging in magical battles, and changing their plans as they try to decide what to do. The plot won’t allow them to really go anywhere or do anything until the Akharians show up, so this makes the first three-quarters of the book slow. My problems with pacing might have been alleviated if we had seen the Akharian magicians on page 200 rather than three-fourths of the way through the story.
Spurrier’s prose is up to the task of describing the world and telling the story, although her action sequences are a little slow and, surprisingly, many battles take place off the page. The subject matter, as you’ve probably gathered, is dark, since torture is the main thing people do to each other. Isidro has a badly damaged arm that the writer seems to forget about at times; often Isidro is in terrible pain, but a few pages later we see him “shrugging off his coat” with no difficulty. Spurrier gave herself a big writerly challenge in the degree to which Isidro’s arm is injured; I admire her audacity even while I see inconsistencies with it.
I finished Winter Be My Shield and I am curious to see what happens next, mainly because I want to find out the truth about the magics in this world. There is enough interest and adventure here to make this book engaging, and the structural problems may smooth out in the later books.