Book Review: Winterwood by Jacey Bedford
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1 of Rowankind
Publisher: DAW (February 2, 2016)
Length: 432 pages
Winterwood and I were love at first sight, and all you have to do is take a gander at the book’s myriad subjects to see why: Magic. History. Fantasy. Romance. Fae. Ghosts. Shapeshifters. PIRATES. It’s like an irresistible smorgasbord of all my favorite themes and fantasy elements all in one place, and a strong, compelling female protagonist was the cherry on top.
Set in Britain in the time of King George III, Winterwood tells the tale of Rossalinde Tremayne, a young woman gifted with magical abilities. Seven years ago, she eloped with privateer captain Will Tremayne along with the Heart of Oak, the ship meant as her dowry, and Ross’s mother hasn’t forgiven her since. Now Will has been dead these past three years, and Ross has taken on the mantle of the Heart’s commander, adopting her late husband’s identity and disguising herself by wearing men’s clothing.
The book begins with Ross returning home to visit her ailing mother on her deathbed. In doing so, she learns more about her family than she ever bargained for, including the fact that she has a half-brother named David, who was fathered by the household’s rowankind bondservant. Ross also inherits a beautiful winterwood box, an object of great magical power that she is told only she can open, but the repercussions of that may be far-reaching and dire. Add to that, a shadowy enemy is on the hunt for Ross as well, and he would do anything to stop her from unlocking the box’s mysteries. With the crew of the Heart and the help of her newfound brother and a dashing wolf shapeshifter named Corwen, Ross sets off on a swashbuckling chase across the high seas to seeks answers and uncover the truth about her family’s secrets.
In news that I’m sure will surprise no one, I absolutely adore stories about women characters disguised as men, and even better when the book is a maritime fantasy and the protagonist is a capable heroine who captains her own ship. I love how Rossalinde is a strong and intelligent woman, but that she also listens to her heart. She gave everything up to marry the man of her dreams, and even though she and Will only had four short years together, she doesn’t regret her decision one bit. Interestingly, while Will’s death occurs before the book even begins, we still get to meet him in Winterwood in the form of his ghost. Back when her grief was still a raw and open wound, Ross unwittingly summoned him and now his spirit is a constant presence in her life. Will’s ghost and Ross share some humorous moments, but for the most part his appearances are a reminder of tragedy; he is a symbol of her past at a time when she should really be looking to the future. Being torn between two paths is devastating for a woman like Ross who is so in tune to her emotions, which is why I felt for her.
In addition to offering a well-crafted main protagonist, Winterwood also offers an altogether tantalizing blend of fantasy and historical fiction. Jacey Bedford’s prose is elegant and evocative of the setting, which is an alternate version of early 19th century Britain steeped in magic. The world feels familiar yet new, plus we get the added benefit of being on the ocean for a substantial part of this book, deeply immersed in the life of privateering during this time period. The battles at sea against pirates and French ships alike are thrilling and dramatic, where victory may come at a high cost but the rewards are well worth it. The dialogue is also superbly done, especially when it comes to the crew of the Heart and their nautical jargon and rough accents.
In terms of magic, this book is practically full to brimming with it. Perhaps the foremost fantastical element comes in the form of the rowankind, a docile and subjugated race of people exploited for their labor. Britain’s entire economy is dependent on these unpaid servants, and yet their history and origins are mostly unknown, lost to time. However, there are rumors that connect them to the Fae, who also have a large role to play in this story. Moreover, the realm of the Fae is completely separate from the domain of The Green Lady, who rules over the natural world. While the inner workings of the various kinds of magic go largely unexplained, it is clear that there are many sources of it, and their powers mingle and react in very interesting ways.
Also, when a book’s tagline reads “A tale of magic, piracy, adventure and love”, you’d be correct to expect a heavy dose of romance. Love is something Ross is just starting to allow herself to explore again after losing Will, and Corwen proves to be a good match for her, with lots of chemistry and sexual tension between the privateer and the wolf shapeshifter (just don’t call her a pirate, or him a werewolf—them’s fightin’ words!) But to my surprise, there’s more to this book than just romantic love. Familial love is an important part of this story too, with Ross accepting her half-brother David, becoming overprotective when he is threatened or treated poorly because of his rowankind heritage. I was impressed with the emotional level and complexity of the relationships in this book, as well as its unique perspective on social prejudice.
The best thing about Winterwood is its many fascinating components, which Jacey Bedford weaves into one amazing story of magic and adventure. Rollicking action is expertly balanced with passionate romance in this novel which will leave you salivating for more, and I loved every moment! I’m already looking forward to the next installment and dreaming about a return to this exciting, magical world.