Justine B, Reviewer
Last updated on 05 Mar 2020
"Grand dukes make grand statements."
The Winter Duke by Claire Eliza Bartlett is a YA Fantasy story beautifully weaved with mysteries, puzzles, and courtly intrigue. At its heart, it’s a cautionary tale of the consequences of attempting to be something or someone you’re not by abandoning your true identity, and therefore losing yourself in the process. Within its pages we witness a horrific suffering caused by the sins of those that came before, but a triumphant realization that there is ALWAYS another way, one that eliminates the need to choose the lesser of two evils. It’s a story of growth and strength, and one that demonstrates being different is not only acceptable, but should be celebrated.
Bartlett does a wonderful job of creating a cast of characters that elicit strong emotions in her readers by making them relatable and incredibly easy to sympathize with. Ekata takes center stage as the only remaining member of the Avenko family not inhibited by a magical curse. Forced into an unwanted dukedom, she’s unsure, naive, and fearful, but her scientific mind and stubbornness allow her to forge ahead. By her side is Inkar, expendable daughter of a powerful enemy to the realm, and newly appointed grand consort. Her enigmatic, proud, and confident demeanor opposes, yet perfectly balances Ekata’s in a stunning way. Witnessing how their tentative relationship allows them both to grow is just perfection.
The two are hemmed in by enemies on all sides, and most notably Sigis, a cruel and abhorrent king with his sight set on the throne. A ministry of officials consistently blocks Ekata’s path every step of the way, chipping away at her constitution and solidifying her uncertainty. Born into a family who would easily murder their kin to get their way, she has always been aware that friends are difficult to come by, and these scheming ministers only prove this. With promises of aid, she’s led astray by most, learning that she can only depend on herself and her own beliefs to see her through the storm.
The setting of the book is breathtakingly atmospheric; Kylma Above, a city built upon the ice of the cold North, and Kylma Below, a city nestled within the frozen waters below. There is a profound beauty that accompanies the the dangers that lurk within the darkness and shadows of both, giving these cold landscapes a bit of warmth. Allowing readers to explore these contrasting places was an excellent decision, and learning of the tenuous ties between the two was a rewarding experience. I also found the emphasis on winter and blooming roses superb metaphors for change and the new beginnings that undoubtedly lie ahead.
The story itself is dominated by a carefully crafted plot that takes so many twists and turns, the solution to the grand puzzle is difficult to discern, which kept me guessing until the very end. Bartlett’s incorporation of the inner workings of political ambition and intrigue alongside a whodunit mystery is done so seamlessly, weaving an engrossing and interesting tale. Simple prose with focus on the importance of the emotional factor made following this winding road an easy and enjoyable journey.
The Winter Duke instantly became a book I needed to read as soon as I read its blurb, and it easily met all my expectations. I thoroughly enjoyed wading through the political catastrophes Ekata found herself thrown into, and the end is completely satisfying and fitting for a standalone adventure (although I wouldn’t mind visiting again in the future!). If you’re looking for a tale of chance, trust, and seeking one’s true path, I highly recommend you give this one a try.
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