One thing to know ahead of time is that this book is set in “The World of Ruin.” Before you even get into the story, you know that this place has been falling apart for so long that the people living here generally acknowledge it as a fact of life. It is unclear in this book if Ruin is a direct dark force, some sort of intentional malevolent happening, or just an example of the pattern we’ve seen in our own history; a civilization rises, becomes too bloated, collapses and falls, and on come the ravening barbarians, from within and without. But that does not matter for this story. What matters is that the author has created a world where the bones of a glorious, beautiful, powerful civilization are showing, while the flesh is falling off in rot. So don’t be prepared for valiant, radiant protagonists. People like that don’t live here. The whole place is falling apart, and even the most heroic knights, with the greatest love for the honor and dignity of days gone by, even they are soiled down deep and choking on ruin.
This may not sound like a good thing, and some people may indeed not enjoy this book. But I did. The protagonists Ovelia and Regel are weighed down with layers of old secrets, years of dirty deeds and hard choices, and blood they can’t wash off. Their secrets have secrets, and every choice and interaction resonates through their respective wells of deep, old, dark pain. It can get heavy and frustrating for readers sometimes – the emotional layering of the story is less of like a familiar epic fantasy and more like a spy thriller, Shakespearian tragedy or a really heavy family drama. You know, the kind where you want to shake a character and scream “Tell him! Tell her! Use your words!” But for all that, probably even because of it, the story kept a hold on me.
The old bones of this world ring sadly of past glory, but that echo and the glints of light, love and valor that shine off these two tarnished souls kept me hooked, grasping to see what good they might forge out of this world where everyone – even them – seems to have wheels tuning within wheels all driving toward an inevitable, staggering collapse. If I have made this tale sound heavy with gloom and doom, think of it this way: Imagine Lord of the Rings, but there is no Gondor, no Rivendell, no Shire. All the bastions of hope have fallen to Sauron. That jerk. You just have two old hobbits with a ring and a memory of what the sun looked like. And maybe you have Aragorn too, but he’s hooked on smack and has Arwen’s blood on his hands. Imagine that story, those people fighting against the dark to bring something good into the world. The darkness is deeper, but if hope can come through, then it’s all the more precious for that.
As brutal and emotionally wracking as “Shadow of the Winter King” is, it’s all to set the stage for a story to remind us that, no matter how dire things get, hope lives as long as there is still one of us left to strive for it. It isn’t until the last few pages, maybe even the last few words, but this story gives birth – from the hearts of some deeply troubled and wounded people – to a burst of light and human spirit that just might in the coming books push back against the tide of Ruin.