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Book Review: Midwinter by Matthew Sturges

# Genre: Epic Fantasy; Sword and Sorcery; Parallel Worlds
# Title: Midwinter
# Author: Matthew Sturges
# Paperback: 430 pages
# Publisher: Pyr
# Publication Date: March 24, 2009
# ISBN-10: 1591027349
# ISBN-13: 978-1591027348

On its surface, Midwinter by Matthew Sturges should have been the kind of book I love. Fairie based epic fantasy? Check. Lots of sword fights? Check. Truly diabolical villains and a villainess? Check. But for all that the book seems to meet my every reading need; I finished this volume feeling unsatisfied, disconnected, and very confused.

The story is about a man named Mauritane. Jailed for the killing of a fellow officer in Queen Titania’s Royal Guard, his queen has now turned to him to fulfill a desperate quest to find and return to her an item of power. Gathering about him several companions for the journey (including a theoretical physicist from our world), this elf captain leads them into the very heart of danger.

Told primarily from Mauritane’s point of view, this story is hard to follow and has a succession of disconnects and scenes full of “deus ex machina”. Initially, Sturges cleverly hides that fact that the story takes place in the world of Fae, where elves, magic and medieval society are the determinants. Along side the world of the Fae exist other worlds, including modern Earth, from which the character Satterly springs, and Avalon, Raieve’s homeworld. As the story progresses, we come to learn all these facts, but it is not clear right from the start. It is hard to say whether this was intentional or not, though the rest of the writing leads me to believe it was not.

Characterization in this story is non-existent. Each character exists mostly as archetypes. Mauritane is the hero, the can-do, unstoppable fighter. Raieve is the female everyone wants to sleep with, a deadly blade, and completely dependent on men for her self-worth for all that she says otherwise. Satterly is the country bumpkin, totally at a loss in a world not his own. Lord Silverdun is the comic relief, and there are two muscle characters who provide a cannon fodder character and a Judas. Each of these characters exists only within their archetypes. They have nothing that interests or intrigues. They simply plod along, behaving as expected, or even against their established character in ways that are nonsensical. Silverdun, when affronted by a woman, does not seek revenge or a cure for the disfigurement she inflicts. Satterly, when given an opportunity to go to his own world, doesn’t take it, but not out of any sense of loyalty. Raieve falls in love rapidly and predictably, and then is wholly dependent on her lover. Mauritane is the only one who is consistent, but that is only because he is the enigma character. Though the story is seen through his eyes, we really know very little about him. It is hard to act out of character when there is little characterization to begin with.

To give Sturges the benefit of the doubt, he has primarily been a writer of comics. In comics, you have the added benefit of images being presented to the reader. These images convey emotion, action, and setting, whereas the script itself is primarily dialogue. Midwinter has reaped both the benefits and problems of that style. Sturges writes dialogue that seems appropriate to a comic book, clipped and to the point. But in a novel, this is problematic, as emotion is not conveyed or the thought processes of characters fleshed out. One character has a discussion with Mauritane about loyalty, and in the very next scene he is killed. This might have worked in a comic where many panels would exist between the conversation and the death, but when it occurs only one page after what appeared to be character building, it leaves the reader feeling bereft before he/she has been allowed to really feel any connection to the character.

And Sturges does not give much in the way of setting. In this case, a map would have been helpful (this may exist in the final version, I only had an ARC), in fact, is downright necessary. The companions must pass through the contested lands, an area Queen Titania and Queen Mab both claim. But from the way the book reads, the contested lands are smack dab in the middle of Queen Titania’s realm, which makes me wonder how they could be so contested. The relationship of objects and people is not always clear either. The world feels half-formed, as if Sturges had an idea, but never fully fleshed it out, expecting the artist to make up for any deficiencies of text.

In terms of plot, the story is a Tolkien style companion journey. But there are just way too many side quests. For instance, there is a whole portion of the story in which the companions discover a modern human settlement. The companions do what they can to help. But the story adds nothing in the way of characterization, world-building or moving the plot forward. It simply fills page space. The same is true of the event in which Lord Silverdun is altered. The companions do nothing to try and help their companion return to a proper state (admittedly, this could be because of the limited time frame in which they had to complete their quest – but that is never made clear, nor even implied). They just trundle along on their quest, blithely ignoring the altered state of their companion.

And then there is the deus ex machina. Mauritane almost always has the answer, and he always has the right tools for the job. When the companions fight Queen Mab directly, Mauritane comes up with a genius plan for stopping her before he knows what tools he has. But the very next scene of the companions is of them being provided with a flying machine – an element of story that had never before been seen in the text, nor was ever even foreshadowed. It is simply there. Sturges is writing in what he needs at the time, and never gives a thought to maintaining consistency with the rest of the text. The magic essence of the gifted characters has a name, but we are not introduced to it until the middle of the novel, and it is only used a couple times after that, mostly in passing. No development of the concept, simply a requirement on the reader to accept what is written unquestioningly.

The fact that the object of this quest novel is not identified until the story is nearly over makes me grind my teeth. Any quest novel worth its salt makes the purpose of the quest clear early on. Midwinter doesn’t. Is it to fight Mab? To remove the once a century era of midwinter? Is to collect an object? The reader doesn’t know until suddenly said object falls into Mauritane’s lap. By making the reader wait to know anything, the writer can simply insert the answer when and where he pleases in the text, with no checks and balances of plot.

This is simply very little to like about this book. The sword and sorcery element is fun, the inclusion of modern inventions in a medieval fantasy harkens back to the alternate universe story that was popular in the 1980’s (I kept seeing Bruce Campbell vs. the Army of Darkness in my head or remembering reading R.A. Salvatore’s The Woods Out Back), and the potential for a great novel is there. It is just that this novel ends up reading more like an outline with just little bit of incomplete fleshing out than a full-fledged novel. In essence, it is a comic book without the added benefit of imagery. Matthew Sturges’ Midwinter is a novel I recommend you let stay on the bookstore shelf.