I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Winterglass by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
Published by Apex Book Company on December 5 2017
Genres: Adult, Fantasy
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The nitty-gritty: Exquisite writing and magical worldbuilding made this a reading experience I won’t soon forget.
Lussadh turns on the heating and listens to the ghosts murmur, a low purr that thrums through walls and ebony boards. Shamans–alchemists of the spirit–can hear and understand their chatter, it is said, the secrets of the dead. If that is so she expects it is mostly banal; some ghosts believing themselves alive, going through their daily matters the same as they did in life. Chores, routines. The afterlife through the queen’s kilns is an amnesiac’s dream, full of forgetting.
A city powered by the dead. A poisonous persimmon tree created as insurance against the future. Mind altering drugs that take users to any world imaginable. I’ll admit I said “yes” to this review request based on the stunning cover of Winterglass, a brutal and magical retelling of The Snow Queen, not necessarily because of the story. And Benjanun Sriduangkaew? Well, I’d never heard of her before (and didn’t even realize she was female until I did a little Googling!). But I’ll tell you now, she is a stunning writer, and I will read anything she writes. Winterglass is a novella, so it’s short enough to be read in a few hours, but it has the scope and heft of a novel, because it’s so beautifully paced and developed.
This review fulfills one of my reading challenges this year, Monthly Motif over @ GirlXOXO, who challenged us to read diversely this month. And I couldn’t have picked a more wonderful example of diversity if I’d tried. This book has it all: it was written by a woman; it was written by a Thai woman and takes place in a fantasy version of Southeast Asia and populated by Southeast Asian characters; and as far as sexual diversity goes, there are queer, transgender, gender fluid, gender neutral and even an intersex character. And rather than forcing all this into her story, Sriduangkaew seamlessly incorporates these elements so that they nearly disappear.
Nuawa is a dualist, a trained fighter who participates in battles to the death (think the gladiator games of ancient Rome). She lives in the city of Sirapirat, ruled by a cruel queen who has turned the city to ice and banished spring and summer. When a tribute game is announced, Nuawa decides to enter, knowing that the winner will become part of the queen’s army.
The queen’s general, a woman named Lussadh, arrives to oversee the games. When Lussadh meets Nuawa after she wins the first round of the games, she is ecstatic because she thinks she has found someone just like her: someone who also has a shard of glass from the queen’s mirror embedded in her heart.
Winning the tribute will bring Nuawa one step closer to the queen, and her ultimate goal of destroying her power over Nuawa’s beloved city of Sirapirat. But what cost is too high to save those you love?
The world in Winterglass is both magical and horrible. Nuawa’s is a harsh life where death and murder is an everyday occurence. One of my favorite elements–although the hardest to swallow–is the idea of the ghost kilns, underground chambers where criminals and even innocents are taken in order to create the ghosts who are used to power the city and keep the heat going. It reminded me of the Auschwitz gas chambers and it was horrifying to read about, although the people of Sirapirat have accepted the kilns as a way of life. Nuawa herself had a brush with a ghost kiln as a child (and I won’t tell you any more than that) which is very important to the story.
There are other unique elements that I loved. People’s shadows can be attacked and hurt, causing that person pain or death. I loved reading about some of Nuawa’s duals where she attacks her opponent’s shadow in order to win the match. I loved the little world-building details, like magical tattoos that protect the bearer against curses and harm or the fact that the glass shard embedded in Lussadh’s heart binds her to the queen. Winterglass is based on a fairy tale, and it definitely had a dreamy, otherworldly quality to it.
The relationships are complex and messy, and they are one reason I’d love to reread Winterglass at some point, because I know I’ll get more from it the second time around. This is Lussadh’s story almost as much as it is Nuawa’s, and the chapters alternate between their two points of view. Lussadh has an interesting relationship with the queen, and when she meets Nuawa, they form a dangerous and intimate bond. But I think my favorite relationship was between Nuawa and her mother Indrahi. They don’t live together, but they talk every day, and although much of their interaction seems banal on the surface, they were so attuned to each other that they could communicate the important things without words.
At its heart, this is a story about an oppressed city and its people, who struggle daily to survive under the thumb of a tyrant. It’s no different than the plight of many places in the world, unfortunately, and the added fairy tale trappings make this oppression even more horrifying. I love Nuawa for the things she must bear and the hard choices she must make. The ending ripped out my heart and stomped on it for good measure, and I don’t think I’ll ever be the same again. If you haven’t read anything by Benjanun Sriduangkaew, then you really should, as soon as you can.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.