Winterstrike offers up a mixture of gothic fantasy and space opera that succeeds and fails to engage in roughly equal measures. Set far into the future, after an age of technological experimentation and the colonization of Mars, the novel feels steeped in history. It deals with the political and personal lives of the members of one of the ruling houses of the city of Winterstrike, told from the perspectives of the spy Hestia Mar and her cousin Essegui Harn. Life on Mars has seen male members of society cast out into the wilderness to survive as best they can, whilst the female population remains entrenched in the urban centres. The political ramifications of this are minimized by the naturalisation of the schism, which leads to a sense of mutual enmity and almost absolute separation of the genders throughout the novel.
Winterstrike is on the verge of war with a neighbouring city, Caud, and Hestia has been dispatched to the ruins of the latter's library in order to find an ancient weapon that would ensure the victory of her people should the conflict escalate. Whilst there she encounters a ghost warrior who aids her in her mission (the heavy influence of heroic fantasy on the novel tempted me to say "quest"), leading her into a far larger web of intrigue.
Meanwhile, Essegui attempts to alleviate the suffering of her sister, Leretui, who is now known as Shorn, after her disastrous encounter with a "vulpen" was discovered. The vulpen are products of the genetic alterations that degraded human men and led to their expulsion from society. Contact with them is the ultimate taboo, and simply being seen to be approached by one is to lose all status in Winterstrikian society. Shorn/Leretui's indiscretion has thus disgraced her ambitious mother Alleghetta, who wishes to be elevated to the ruling Matriarchy of Winterstrike, and has led to her incarceration in an isolated cell. Having argued on her behalf, Essegui convinces Alleghetta to allow her sister to join in with the celebrations of Ombre, a year since meeting with the vulpen. Shorn/Leretui disappears after once again encountering one of the vulpen on the icy canals that thread through the city and, consequently, Essegui is pressed into a rescue mission after part of her soul is stolen by a "majike," a practitioner of "black science."
The spirits of the dead (and living) play an important role in the technology of Mars, which is aptly named "haunt-tech." This is sufficiently advanced technology in a literal sense; the guardian wards and spirit-walking staples of fantasy could be substituted for their haunt-tech equivalents without any significant alteration to the plot. I am in favour of a disrespectful attitude towards genre boundaries, but it requires a skilful act of blending to translate this into a convincing narrative. At times it feels as though Williams is writing heroic fantasy with the trappings of sf. Given the fairly minimal role of travel across the solar system, it is arguable as to whether the space operatic elements add anything to this tale of heroes, monsters, and armies of the dead. However, the manipulation of the human form to suit a hostile environment is an evocative sf trope, and there is scope to develop this throughout the trilogy, perhaps changing the role of the men remnants from being the Martian equivalent of orcs to a sympathetic oppositional group to the Matriarchies.
Travelling through "haunt-space" allows interplanetary travel at the price of temporary death, with the traveller reanimated upon arrival. Williams withholds explanation as to how and why this technology works the way it does, instead emphasising its antiquity to provide a mythic quality to the
great transliners that carried the passengers through into the realms of the dead and brought them back to life again, all the ancient, half-comprehended technologies bequeathed to the modern era from before the Age of Ice and the Age of Children, the Age of Error and the Age of Pain. (p. 103)
Williams's Mars is also reminiscent of Jack Vance's Dying Earth (1950). Technology rots and the feudal past bursts through, an archaic network of weeds choking a steampunk garden. The first page of the novel demonstrates how skilfully Williams uses this setting to generate Winterstrike's cold, gothic tone, describing the fortress located in the centre of Winterstrike economically but to great effect as
a mass of vitrified stone striped as white as a bone and as red as a still-beating heart. It has a shattered turret, from some long- forgotten war, in which verminous birds fight and nest and cry. (p. 1)
Mars is peopled by wonderfully weird denizens, such as the "scissor women," or "excissieres," who
converse by means of the patterns of holographic wounds that play across their flesh and armour [...] raw scratches and gaping mouths, mimicking injuries too severe not to be fatal, fading into scars and then blankness, in endless permutation. (p. 20)
However, the interest generated by the worlds presented in the novel is undercut by some fairly major flaws of characterisation and tension. The chapters alternate between the two main characters, who seem almost indistinguishable—despite Hestia's dangerous profession, which should contrast vividly with the sheltered, domestic environment Essegui had previously been confined to. As they converge on the mysterious mountain range of the Noumenon, the two blur together so as to feel like indistinguishable point-of-view cameras, existing solely to allow a broader spectrum of actions and events to be seen than could be achieved by following a single character.
This is compounded by the nonchalance with which the two surmount danger: the characters are captured so many times that imprisonment is viewed as a minor setback, rather than something to be genuinely feared. It typically takes either Hestia or Essegui little more than a few moments—often less than a page—to go from a plan to successful escape. Indeed, Essegui herself reflects upon the bizarre frequency with which she has been captured over a very short space of time: "In the cell, I passed the time by counting the number of people who had now attempted to kidnap me. So far, I made it about a dozen" (p. 208). My thoughts turned from the narrative to wonder why the Martian locksmiths and engineers of carceral spaces were so plainly appalling at their jobs that even a novice escapologist such as Essegui can shrug off imprisonment with such ease.
The engineering deficits of the Martians notwithstanding, the characters themselves frequently seem to be unconcerned at the plights they face. Consider this exchange, which takes place just after Hestia has extracted Shorn/Leretui from her kidnappers, though both know that she cannot be returned to Winterstrike. Here, Hestia is about to venture back into danger in order to ascertain who has been orchestrating a plan that involves the fate of her family and city, leaving Shorn/Leretui in a desolate region:
"What if you don't come back? Shorn asked. "I never learned to fly a ship."
"If I don't come back," I said, "then it's over for both of us. Give me three hours. After that—make your own way, Leretui. I'll have done what I can."
After a moment, she nodded. "Fair enough." (p. 199)
Despite the listlessness displayed in the example given above, the character of Shorn/Leretui is by far the most interesting and convincing in the novel, moving from victim to avenging figurehead of revolution after a period of self doubt and by responding to the extreme situations she faces: "She found that her thoughts had taken to spiralling endlessly around, like birds around carrion, dwelling on the past, on shame and humiliation" (p. 148). Williams clearly has the imagination and skill to engage the reader and draw them into her fictional worlds; it's keeping them interested where she falls down. Though the final few pages do introduce loss and pain, it is too little, too late. The two subsequent instalments in the series will have to significantly increase the sense of menace—perhaps even kill off either Hestia or Essegui—so that the rhetoric given to the dangers they encounter and the things that are at stake seems justified and genuine. Without some substantial changes of this nature it will be hard to care about the adversities they face.
David is an English Literature graduate from Liverpool who has returned to his home city for an MA in Science Fiction Studies. He has previously reviewed for the Interzone website.