This is going to be a review of one of the best books you probably won’t be able to read (at least if you live in the US) by an author you’ve probably not heard of. The reason is that the book is by an Australian writer and published by an Australian publisher. At the moment it hasn’t been published in the US. Hopefully that will change, but the vagaries of publishing aren’t rational.
Winter Be my Shield is the debut novel by Jo Spurrier. (I love that title.) Aside from a tendency in the first 50 pages to give infodumps, you can’t tell it’s a first novel. I found this novel to be a fresh, original, and dark read. I’m looking forward to the sequel.
The story is set in the land of Ricalan, which has been settled by the kingdom of Mesentreia. Ricalan was inhabited before the settlers arrived, and there’s quite a bit of tension. At the moment, Ricalani and Mesentreians have a common enemy. They’re being invaded from the west by the Akharian Empire. The Empire has an economy built on slavery, and to keep it running they need a fresh supply of slaves.
The story revolves around Sierra, a Ricalani who is a mage. A century before, a Ricalani queen destroyed all the mages as revenge for her daughter’s death in a mage war. Since then, mages have been feared and hated, none more so than those of Sierra’s ability. She draws her power from the suffering of others. There’s a death sentence hanging over her head just because she exists.
When the book opens, she’s just escaped from two years of captivity as an “apprentice” to a Blood Mage, a mage who draws his power from the suffering of others. The difference is that a Blood Mage has to do this through ritual. For Sierra, the ability comes naturally and enables her to act as a conduit to channel energy to a more powerful sorcerer.
On her trail is another apprentice, Rasten, who’s a nasty piece of work. Of course, next to his master Kell (the Blood Mage), he’s a boy scout. Rasten has been warped and twisted by a decade of abuse at Kell’s hands. Kell comes by his sadism naturally, Rasten’s has been taught. Now Rasten has had enough and wants Sierra’s help in destroying Kell.
Sierra falls in with a pair of exiled princes, Cam and his foster brother Isidro. Isidro recently escaped from Kell; Sierra was there when he was tortured. Cam’s mother is the Mesentreian queen, and she’s put a price on his head. Like I said, this is a dark book.
There’s a good deal of intrigue in this one, with “intrigue” being spelled b-e-t-r-a-y-a-l. Spurrier focuses on a handful of viewpoint characters, letting us know them quite well. This is one of the strengths of the novel. There are combat scenes, both personal and on a larger scale, and they’re handled well. But it’s the characters that made me want to keep reading. Especially since by the end of the book, Spurrier had done an outstanding job of showing different degrees of evil. Rather than have black and white, there’s a broad spectrum of grey. We see why the different characters do what they do, and this lends a high amount of moral ambiguity to the story.
Like I said, the first 50 or so pages have a bit too much backstory infodumped into them. But if you’re patient, you’ll be rewarded with an exciting, compelling read. Winter Be my Shield is a solid, compulsively readable dark fantasy. Me, I’m looking forward to the sequel, Black Sun Light My Way. Of course, it isn’t available in the US either. I’ve found a couple vendors online, but the shipping costs as much as or more than the book. However, I have my agents working to secure me a copy. It’s only a matter of time.
I’d like to thank the David Gemmell Awards for sending me a review copy. I don’t think I got my review in to them in time for it to be posted. I’d like to apologize to the author and the awards for my tardiness. Since the voting is over, I’m posting the review here.