Well, 2006 is turning out to be the year of the hot debuts. Hal Duncan, Naomi Novik, Scott Lynch, Joel Shepherd, Joe Abercrombie, and now Brian Ruckley. In any other year, Winterbirth would undoubtedly be considered the best fantasy debut. But this year, the opening chapter of The Godless World trilogy must share the spotlight with powerhouses such as Vellum, The Lies of Locke Lamora, and a bunch of other spectacular debuts. Such is the quality of this year's new talent. . .
I learned about Winterbirth while browsing through the various threads on asoiaf.westeros.org. Some readers there opined that fans of George R. R. Martin would probably enjoy this one. Upon reflection, I agree with their assessment. Yet I wish to clarify one thing: Winterbirth is nothing like A Song of Ice and Fire in terms of story. In style and tone, however, Winterbirth is similar to Martin's series. It's a dark and gritty fantasy; don't expect humour and bantering dialogues in this novel. And not unlike GRRM, Ruckley is not averse to killing off his characters.
This book is a fine example of good worldbuilding, even though we only catch a glimpse in this first volume. Still, the author provides many hints which indicate that this universe has a lot more depth. A past not yet buried offers a few fascinating glimpses which truly piqued my curiosity. The dissension among the True Bloods was a bit predictable at times, though.
I enjoyed the way magic is subdued to some extent -- again very similar to the manner with which Martin portrays it. The na'kyrim resemble Katherine Kurtz's Deryni in many ways. The storylines involving the Bloods of the Black Road and the Inkallim were my favourites. The presence of those fundamentalists and their religion in a godless world added another dimension to this tale.
The characterizations are typical at the beginning of the book. But when Ruckley starts to kill characters that appeared to be there for the long run, one immediately realizes that the author has several surprises in store for his readers.
The pace is good, meaning that the novel contains no dull moments. The fact that this is a trilogy forces Ruckley to write a tight story, thus preventing him from leading readers astray with a panoply of subplots that serve little or no purpose.
I felt that the ending was a bit rushed. Other than that, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. As the first volume in a trilogy, it is, in essence, an introduction to a vaster tale. Yet the ending brings closure to certain storylines and it leaves the door wide open for a lot more to come.
If you are looking for another fine debut, Brian Ruckley's Winterbirth should not disappoint. This title will be one of the first novels published by the new US Orbit imprint. Those who cannot wait can order it from amazon.ca. . .
Definitely one of the best fantasy novels of 2006.
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