The Winter Long by Seanan McGuire

Rating 4.7/10
Now is the winter of our discontent

There were several reasons why my lady and I were particularly looking forward to The Winter Long. Chimes at Midnight (as you’ll gather if you’ve seen my review), had been a rousing success and high point for the series, one in which McGuire herself said a major plot arc had set sail. Furthermore, even a glance at the blurb for The Winter Long promises some revelations and answered questions, with the return of Sylvester Torquill’s evil brother Simon, who’s been a lurking presence ever since Rosemary and Rue. Unfortunately, The Winter Long did not live up to expectations, indeed the dramatic punch it promised was more of a wet slap. Before discussing why, bear in mind this review will be mentioning spoilers from the previous books up to Chimes at Midnight, and whatever inequities this particular book has I’d still highly recommend the series as a whole.

Things start well for Toby. Despite an intensive dislike of parties (something I can definitely sympathise with), she finds herself actually enjoying the new Queen in the Mists Arden Windermere’s first ball, especially when she’s named official hero to the Kingdom of the Mists. Unfortunately however, returning from the party a sleepy Toby gets a rude awakening courtesy of Simon, the faerie noble who previously turned Toby into a fish for fourteen years.

Starting a book with a major villain appearing is of course a great way to grab readers’ attention, since as with Oleander’s appearance in Late Eclipses, we have been anticipating Simon’s arrival for 7 books now. Similarly, the fact that Simon apparently wants to talk to October rather than fight; and hints that he might have had legitimate reasons for turning her into a fish sets up an interesting mystery to explore.

The problems start however with October’s reaction and the direction of the plot. In some previous books such as Late Eclipses and One Salt Sea, McGuire has had a minor issue with progression. She obviously knows where her characters need to be, even if she’s occasionally had to employ flimsy bits of reasoning or odd coincidences to get them there, such as everyone’s troop into Countess Reorden’s clutches to get captured for the climax of Ashes of Honour. Nevertheless, flimsy though some of the bridges were I always got a sense that McGuire knew where the final destination was.

The plot in The Winter Long however is structured differently. Rather than a kidnapping or overthrowing an evil queen, everything moves by reacting to revelations, first from Simon then from Eira Rosynhwyr, the firstborn whose presence was hinted at in Chimes at Midnight and whom Simon has been working for.

The problem with these revelations however, is that without a central direction, the book turns into essentially Scooby Doo, with Simon or Eira popping up somewhere, and Toby and the gang running in another direction, only to run straight into the bad guys again. This meant that the first revelation from Simon was artificially delayed by Toby essentially not wanting to listen and running from place to place in order to avoid listening. Of course, October has ample reason not to wish to listen to Simon or believe what he has to say, especially since Simon himself is under a geas which makes giving out any information difficult, however since we as readers know that the plot won’t actually go anywhere until October hears what Simon has to say this just felt like a delay for no reason, particularly since one would assume that October, as a competent, rational private investigator might be able to put her feelings aside long enough to wonder who or how someone put a geas on such a powerful magician as Simon in the first place, then again, as unfortunately is the case throughout this novel October and “rational” seem not to be on speaking terms.

Speaking of delaying tactics, I do not know if McGuire was going through a bad time in her life, but the writing here was all in all far less polished than in the rest of the series. Though not a poet, McGuire’s writing has always been tight and atmospheric with a deft touch for character; though not here. Scenes were a little too long, banter not quite snappy enough, emotional reactions exaggerated (often to the detriment of her characters, especially October). There were even a few blatant typos and redundancies, such as getting a character’s name wrong (which happened on at least three occasions), or describing something as “burning like a burning ember”; easy mistakes that really should have been caught by McGuire’s editor.

Of course, very few books are 100% badness from stem to stern and The Winter Long did have its good points. Tybalt, Toby’s feline lover was not only his usual smart and sassy self, but also showed a deal of actual care for October here that went rather beyond the basic banter we’d seen previously, indeed for all the things that I did not enjoy in this novel, I can say this is the first time that I’ve got a real sense of Toby’s relationship with Tybalt as a serious one rather than a bit of fun. Similarly, it was nice to catch up with Etienne, Toby’s one time mentor and his changeling daughter Chelsea.

Unfortunately, much else in characterisation here was overshadowed by the revelations and the way Toby reacted to them. Revelations can be wonderful if done right, just look at the big daddy of them all Empire Strikes Back (beware spoilers!). The revelation that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father is amazingly delivered. We are given hints that there could be a darkness in Luke, and that Darth Vader has a specific interest in him, furthermore Vader was the one who killed Luke’s previous father figure, Obi-wan Kenobi, plus of course that comes at the very climax of the action and at a cliff hanger to boot.

Sadly McGuire doesn’t do half as well with Toby. The revelation in question does not relate to Toby’s blood, so doesn’t tell us anything new about Toby or give us any possibilities for her character, indeed for all apparent significance it bore to Toby it was far more like Dark Helmet’s revelation in Space Balls, that he was Lonestar’s father’s brother’s cousin’s nephew’s former roommate, a revelation which means (as Lonestar says), absolutely nothing.

Yet despite its seeming irrelevance, Toby’s over emotional reaction to this revelation makes Luke’s violent scream in Empire seem restrained, and heralds a most unwelcome change in her character.

She immediately starts hating all of those who didn’t tell her about that revelation, especially Silvester Torquill, indeed yet another reason I tend to believe that McGuire might have underwritten The Winter Long is that Toby’s reactions here are far more those of a sulky teenager, than a grown woman and for the first time in the series my lady and I found ourselves definitely disliking the main character.

McGuire before has shown herself to have difficulty writing villains, here however, she not only had problems with villains, but with even major characters who happened to disagree with Toby, something which didn’t endear Toby to us any further.

The second revelation (concerning Eira Rosynhwyr was even more problematic, since it turns out Eira is actually someone from Toby’s past. Yet for some reason when she appears she is simply no holds barred moustache twirling eeeeevil! How Toby didn’t notice this previously is rather confusing particularly since we immediately move from a plot of gaining revelations and running back and forth, to a plot of directly stopping Eira.

Eira herself again was a severe disappointment. In her presentation which is redolent of several interesting faerie tales, she should have been a fascinating character, unfortunately however, she once again turned out to be a one dimensional ranting villainess no motivation.

Indeed, it is odd for a book that is billed on being based around revelation’s how little we actually learn, despite Toby attempting two dangerous pieces of blood magic to gain information. Eira’s overall plan is never revealed, even though its hinted she had one, neither is the reason for her kidnap of Rayseline and Luna, other than that she is, well eeeeeevil!

Rayseline did provide one of the few more interesting sections of the plot and one which again highlights the uses of Toby’s powers, indeed here McGuire did finally succeed at something she’s tried several times in the series and actually depict Rayseline as a tragic character, another reason why the lack of information about the kidnapping was disappointing. Whether Rayseline’s status will have any consequences beyond a rather uniquely described dream sequence we’ll have to see (sadly as noted Toby didn’t learn anything from it).

Another bright spot is the Luidaeg as always, indeed after this particular book I’m rather wondering if we could swap main characters and have a Luidaeg series instead.

Early on she provides a genuinely shocking moment, then returns just as the plot seems to have ground to a halt, though even with the Luidaeg McGuire’s handling of the rules governing Faerie magic was far more iffy than it usually is.

The climax was also disappointing. Beyond a couple of revelations which had already been angsted over far too much we learned absolutely nothing new, and Eira, for all her mystique had no interesting powers or plots beyond spamming the charm person spell again and again, hoping for Toby to fail her saving throw.

The plot even concluded with Toby basically going off into a sulk and effectively telling Tybalt “you’re my only friend” in best teen strop style.

With poorly considered revelations that do not move the plot forward, or even give much villain motivations, a plot which was under written and a main character who was for the first time down right irritating this was a major slump in the series. Even the Luidaeg and a few other likable secondary cast members couldn’t improve the tone here and had this been the first volume in the series I likely wouldn’t be reading anymore, though with the awesome previous volume and the series having a pretty good record on the whole, hopefully things will warm up in the next volume now that winter is over.

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