Monday, April 20, 2009

Matthew Sturges - Midwinter (Book Review)

"Midwinter" (Amazon: UK, US)
Format: Paperback, 345 pages
Publisher: Prometheus Books / Pyr (March 2006)
You probably know how it is when a book's cover looks so great and its summary sounds so intriguing that you want to adore it straight away, without even reading it. In fact, you could almost say you're afraid to read such a book because you don't want to get disillusioned. I felt like that when I got "Midwinter" in the mail – but to my relief, when I finally dared to open it, I found out that its beginning was great.

The opening scene shows us directly into a prison brawl, where we meet two of the main characters; a warrior called Mauritane and the mysterious Raieve. There is no introduction to the world in which the story takes place or to the events that lead to either one’s imprisonment, which is one of the reasons why the beginning is so gripping and intriguing. When the plot became quest-oriented soon after the opening chapters, I was not disheartened – even though there is a danger of getting trapped into the usual cliché of quest-oriented fantasy (the great hero goes on a quest, saves the world and gets the girl), there are still really great books with quest-based plots. I was also charmed by the amount of humour present (you can find an example at the beginning of SQT’s review) and I often laughed out loud while reading. Plus, there were curious little tidbits of mystery: different worlds, the strange Gifts and re energy of the elves, Mauritane and Purane-Es’ past … The first third of "Midwinter" showed great potential – honestly, I was certain that it could get better than, say, one of the Abercrombie’s books.

The problem is that all the initial potential went more or less to waste. In fact, the book deteriorates so much after the first third that the reader wonders whether STURGES simply got lucky with the beginning. First signs that the story has started to go wrong appear soon enough: on about one third of the novel, more and more of the details don’t get explained, and the adventurers are revealed to bear the most typical roles of adventuring party members:
  • a near-omnipotent, loyal and honourable leader
  • a mysterious elven woman who is, depending on situation, either a cold-blooded fighter or a damsel in distress
  • a wizard whose sole point in life seems to be chasing young women
  • a human physicist who serves as the clumsy, confused provider of comic relief and
  • a few elves, who seem to be there only because STURGES felt that not all of the party members should survive but couldn’t spare any of the important ones.
Other characters are, sadly, none the better. Hy Pezho is your typical frustrated villain who abhors the fact that he is of no interest to women and wants to achieve greatness in order to finally win the hearts of the court ladies. The two Queens of the opposing sides appear to be little less than statues when it comes to their character – we don’t even get to know why exactly our party of ‘good guys’ follows one and not the other, since the only vague reason we get is somewhere along the lines of ‘ well, we’re used to being loyal’. Lady Anne is one of the rare brighter spots here and the only character who isn’t strictly black or white; she is shunned by society because of her noble husband’s imprisonment and must choose between loyalty and social life. Purane Es is half mindless, vengeful jerk and half romantic poet who is forced to obey his father’s wishes. My almost-extinguished hopes rose when Purane-Es decided to win Lady Anne for himself and delivered the ‘you’re so special, I’ve never felt like this before’ speech – I was delighted with how evil, cunning and convincing he was. Imagine my disappointment when I found out that he was, in fact, being honest.

At that moment, I put "Midwinter" down for a week. I can’t describe how disappointed I felt – I kept hoping that all those little mysteries will be solved, that the questions will get answered and things like Gifts will get explained, but as I neared the ending, I saw that this was not the case. When I finally decided to pick "Midwinter" up again, I saw that it would be better if I left it unread – the conclusion is the lowest point of the book, not because it were badly written but because it is the end of all hopes that Midwinter’s potential will be put to good use. The party almost trips over the quest’s objective, but we still don’t get to know what good the quest actually was. The aforementioned Gifts and re energy are only mentioned once or twice after the beginning, the humour is completely gone after the first third and it is painfully obvious that things like Silverdun‘s transformation and the human settlement subplot were meant to have a purpose which was then lost in the process.

This might sound a little harsh, but I was reminded of the time when I was 14 and trying to write a ‘book’. I had lots and lots of ideas (not terribly innovative ones, but still), but I just piled them all up and then filled the holes with random stuff. When I look at that text now, I see a few good ideas, some unused potential and a lot of useless junk. "Midwinter" is pretty similar in that aspect – piled up ideas, lots of fillers and a potential to be something much, much better. For now, though, "Midwinter" is more of a raw draft than anything else, and will leave a bad taste, regardless of how good the sequels are, but they can push the trilogy onto an average level and maybe even past that if they return to the style of Midwinter’s first third. If it weren’t for the latter, "Midwinter" would be a total waste of time.
~ Trin ~


ediFanoB said...

When I saw the cover and read the blurb I was intrigued. Fortunately I got th opportunity to read several reviews including yours which is a good one.
Now I know why I didn't add the book to my list.

ThRiNiDiR said...

Thanks for dropping by ediFanoB, and for taking our opinion into consideration when picking up books, that's why we are doing this anyway :).

The Mad Hatter said...

I enjoyed Midwinter a lot and actually thought the last 3rd was the most rushed part, especially the ending. But over all it was a solid read and I'll check out the next volume.


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