Hi everyone, I hope you’re all doing well! I’ve been slowly but surely catching up with as many ARCs as I can before the New Year, and that includes The Winter Duke by Claire Eliza Bartlett, which was absolutely perfect for this chilly time of year! I absolutely adored this book and I’m really excited to share my thoughts on it with you, so without further ado (how many times can I use that in my blog posts!), here’s the review!
Title: The Winter Duke
Author: Claire Eliza Bartlett
Genre: Fantasy, LGBT, Young Adult
Synopsis: When Ekata’s brother is finally named heir, there will be nothing to keep her at home in Kylma Above with her murderous family. Not her books or science experiments, not her family’s icy castle atop a frozen lake, not even the tantalizingly close Kylma Below, a mesmerizing underwater kingdom that provides her family with magic. But just as escape is within reach, her parents and twelve siblings fall under a strange sleeping sickness.
In the space of a single night, Ekata inherits the title of duke, her brother’s warrior bride, and ever-encroaching challengers from without—and within—her own ministry. Nothing has prepared Ekata for diplomacy, for war, for love…or for a crown she has never wanted. If Kylma Above is to survive, Ekata must seize her family’s power. And if Ekata is to survive, she must quickly decide how she will wield it.
Part Sleeping Beauty, part Anastasia, with a thrilling political mystery, The Winter Duke is a spellbinding story about choosing what’s right in the face of danger.
I’m going to start this review by saying that I absolutely adored this book! I’ve been feeling a bit distanced from fantasy over the past year, despite it having always been my favourite genre, but this book reignited the love I have for fantasy novels! Despite this being one of my most anticipated 2020 releases, I was a tad apprehensive about picking this one up, after seeing so many people whose reviews I trust, rating this book a 3 stars or lower – but I really shouldn’t have been worried at all, as the book blew any of my expectations out of the water!
The book follows Ekata, who desperately wants to leave her Duchy to study medicine at university, and get as far away from her murderous family as possible. However, on the first night of her eldest brother’s brideshow, her whole family bar her falls under a magical curse where they all seem to be drowning. Ekata begrudgingly takes up the temporary position of Duke and is thrown into the political machinations of her Duchy while also picking one of the brides meant for her brother in order to avoid having to marry the man who seeks claim to her throne.
The world-building in this book is absolutely phenomenal! Recently, with a lot of the fantasy books I’ve read, the world-building has felt a bit lacking and I’ve had trouble picturing the setting in my head, but it was absolutely not a problem while reading The Winter Duke. The majority of the book takes place in Kylma Above – a Duchy completely made out of ice that is suspended upon a lake through the power of magic alone – although we frequently get to see the mysterious Kylma Below – a kingdom that sits in the water under Kylma Above, populated by a mysterious mermaid-like people who control the land’s magic. The chilly atmosphere of the book – both regarding the setting and the political environment – make this the perfect book for this time of year. You find yourself totally immersed in the world, from feeling the soft furs Ekata uses to keep herself warm at night against your skin, to the icy crunch of the spikes on the bottom of her boots that keep her from skiteing (a great Scots word!) across the great slabs of ice that make up her Duchy. And Kylma Below was so intriguing in itself, being simultaneously so dangerous and so beautiful while holding so much power.
The politics in the book sometimes felt maybe more new adult than young adult to me, so perhaps I would suggest this to slightly older YA readers, but as someone who loves political fantasies, this was right up my street. It had the perfect balance of backstabbing and scheming that kept me up until 2am, desperate to find out what would happen to Ekata and her family. I loved following all this drama from Ekata’s perspective, as she had never taken an interest in politics prior to being thrust into the position of Duke, instead focusing on academics, and so we learned everything alongside her.
A critique I frequently saw of the book was of Ekata herself – that she wasn’t a likeable main character, or that her actions felt rather like she did things without properly thinking them through first – but that’s something I liked about her. She was an imperfect human being who, after being forced to take up a position of power, was trying her best with the knowledge she had and was always thinking of how she could help her family while also dealing with trying to keep her Duchy stable. I enjoyed her softer moments when she was left alone with her mother figure, Aino, and her wife, Inkar. Inkar was by far my favourite character in the whole book – she’s absolutely hilarious and adds the perfect amount of comedy relief to an otherwise quite dark novel – and besides, who wouldn’t want a soft, warrior wife like her?! Bartlett also managed to create a villain that is so slimy and disconcerting that you cannot help but loathe him, and I thought that his character was written so, so well.
I also really enjoyed the queer rep and the lack of gendered positions in the book. The title of Duke is not gendered in the book whatsoever, and we see a similar situation with the title of Prince, as a character who uses she/her pronouns fills that role. There is also very casual queer rep in the book, as one of Ekata’s ministers goes by they/them pronouns and the Duke’s brideshow is made up of people of all genders. Casual queer rep, and worlds in which there is no homophobia or transphobia, is something that I absolutely adore in fantasy books, so I was very pleased to see it included here. The sapphic relationship between Ekata and Inkar was very slowburn (despite the book taking place over merely a handful of days) but I felt that its pacing was perfect for the story and when they finally kissed I cheered! I would have loved to have seen more of an emphasis on their relationship but I do understand why it took a bit of a back seat to the rest of Ekata’s storyline.
My only real critique of the book is that I wish that the ending had been fleshed out a bit more. It felt as though everything wrapped up too quickly and too nicely, and I would have liked to know more about what happened with the Duchy’s relationship with Kylma Below, the trade of magic and the fate of Ekata’s family, as these all felt glossed over. I would absolutely adore some sort of sequel, or even a novella, to see these aspects cleared up (and to see more of Ekata and Inkar because I love them so much!), but this is a book I will definitely be revisiting soon! I cannot recommend this book enough if you love political high fantasies and are a fan of Joan He’s Descendant of the Crane and Audrey Coulthurst’s Of Fire and Stars, as this book will definitely be right up your street!