Patricia A. McKillip: Winter Rose (1996)

They said later that he rode into the village on a horse the colour of buttermilk. But I saw him first – as a fall of light. And then as something shaping out of the light. So it seemed. There was a blur of gold: his hair. And then I blinked and saw his face more clearly.’ From that moment, Rois is obsessed with Corbett Lynn. His pale green eyes fill her thoughts and her dreams are consumed by tales of his family’s dark past. Of son’s murdering fathers, of homes fallen to ruin, and of a curse that, as winter draws in, is crawling from the frozen forest to engulf them all.

Ever since I read Patricia A. McKillip’s The Forgotten Beast of Eld, I wanted to read another of her books. She is one of those writers who quietly write one novel after the other and every new book is greeted with a lot of enthusiasm by her fans. Despite her many fans McKillip isn’t a fantasy writer with a huge commercial success, for the simple reason  – I’m guessing – that she doesn’t write trilogies and series. All of her novels are standalones or diptychs, with the exception of The Riddle Master Trilogy. Most of her books are out of print but you can easily get cheap used copies. McKillip’s books are lovely and enchanting and distinctly influenced by fairy tales.

Winter Rose is a retelling of the Scottish tale of Tam Lin. It is a peculiar book and maybe not a typical McKillip because readers either love or hate it. I liked it a lot but can see why others might not have been equally charmed.

While Winter Rose starts like a normal fantasy novel, as soon as reality starts to shift, the writing reads like a fever dream. It is never really clear whether Rois, the main character, is dreaming, has entered another reality or a sort of parallel world. If you want to enjoy this book you have to just let go and follow the flow and not try too much to understand it rationally. It is a bit like reading poetry. Try to picture the images she creates of a world in which the forest can claim people, in which winter swallows everything, in which thorns and ivy weave a web so dense that there is no escaping them. The images are lush and hypnotic, the language is flowery.

Winter Rose isn’t a love story in a conventional sense although Rois falls in love with Corbet the moment she lays eyes on him or rather the moment he materializes before her eyes. Corbet has never been seen in the village in which Rois, her father, her sister Laurel and Laurel’s fiancé Perrin live. It is said that Corbet’s father killed his own father and was cursed. Lynn Hall, the family home, has been standing empty since then and the forest has claimed it back. It is nothing more than an overgrown ruin.

Corbet starts to renovate the house and, accepting Rois’ fathers kind dinner invitations, spends many evenings in their house, talking and laughing with them. Both girls are equally fascinated by Corbet’s mysterious story and want to know everything about him. As much as Rois is infatuated, she is no fool and senses that there is something between Corbet and her sister.

The storytelling is very hypnotic and evokes different layers of reality that are interwoven. When Rois starts to spy on Corbet and follows him into the woods, the realities start to shift for good. There is a strange presence in this other world. Something is waiting in the wood. Is it the Spirit of the Forest, a Guardian, a Faerie? Whatever it is, it is a disquieting being and seems to lure people. Is this the place where Corbet’s father is?

Another mystery that Rois tries to solve is what happened to their mother who died when Rois was just a baby. It is told that Winter took her, she wasn’t ill, she just stopped living. And why has Rois “wood eyes” and sees more than other people?

One day Corbet disappears and Rois goes after him. She crosses the threshold between this world and the other one, and discovers a lot of things that no one else knows.

There really is a lot to like in this novel. The language is poetical and rich in images and Rois is a lovely girl. She is wild and free-spirited and loves to roam the forest. She knows all the medicinal herbs and plants and makes teas and potions for the people of the village.

Despite all the positive aspects, this isn’t a book for everyone. There is simply not enough in terms of story, as said, it is much more like a fever dream.

I’m still in the mood to read another of Patricia A. McKillips novels.  Does anyone have suggestions? I got The Forests of Serre here. Which is your favourite McKillip book?

Winter Rose was my second book for the Once Upon A Time V Challenge.

29 thoughts on “Patricia A. McKillip: Winter Rose (1996)

  1. I have never heard of this author before (no surprise there,my author reference is so limited).

    looking at the cover,it doesn’t seem like fantasy book,more like romance book…but the notion never judge a book by its cover really applies here.

    The last sentence (Despite all the positive aspects, this isn’t a book for everyone. There is simply not enough in terms of story, as said, it is much more like a fever dream) really makes me wonder. A fever dream?

    • Yes, I had a very high fever once and I still remeber how it was. I had the feeling of waking up two or three times in a row but every time I “woke” I was still dreaming. I was so feverish, I couldn’t tell what is real and what is dream anymore. That’s how she wrote this book, she blurred the lines between the things Rois experiences in this world, and in the other world and in her dreams. And she can also reach this other world in her dream. It’s very well done, McKillip plays with your mind. I know that many people prefer to know exactly what is going on. It does become clear in the end, but while you read you are at times as confused as Rois herself. And the end is decidely NOT romance.

      • I know what you mean now,thanks.
        I really like that kind of story, I like story that reveals everything almost at the end of the story better than transparently seen from the beginning.

        • Yes, it’s a bit like a mystery. Probably when you know the fairy tale it is based on you can deduce what is going on but if you don’t then you can’t.

  2. It’s great to hear that you are enjoying Patricia McKillip! I have read several of her books and really liked them all. They are so odd and beautiful. I’ve been meaning to reread the Riddle Master books. I read them when I was quite young and don’t really remember them. I read Winter Rose more recently, and definitely agree with you that it’s like a strange dream. I’m not sure I can pick a favorite, since my dips into her worlds have been so scattered and my memory of the books themselves is vague. I’m pretty sure the Riddle Master books were brilliant though. Happy reading!

    • I think she is one of a kind… It has been a long time ago I read The Forgotten Beast of eld, I loved but it seems to have been more straightforward. I think I read somewhere that The Riddle Master is one of the best. I liked this one. When you are in the mood for it, it’s wonderful. Like watching a movie.

    • Her style is quite amazing. I think it takes a lot to write so beautifully. I haven’t heard of The Alphabet of Thorn. I’ll keep it in mind as well. Thanks.

  3. McKillip is a wonderful author and I’m glad to see you spreading the word about her work. The Book of Atrix Wolfe and The Alphabet of Thorn are two of my favorites.

    • Thanks for the recommendations, Gavin. She has written quite a lot, one hardly knows where to start/continue. I think she would deserve to be read by many more.

  4. I am ashamed to say I had never heard of this author before. But her work is definitely on the list now. Such a shame that most of her books are out of print. For me, her not writing series but mostly stand-alone books is actually a plus.

    • It is a plus for me as well. There are some series I like but in general I don’t. That you haven’t heard of her sort of proves the point. If you go in a book shop you most likely will not see her in a prominent place either. Maybe this isn’t the right book to start with, but the others gave great recommendations and The Forgotten Beast of Eld is really nice.

  5. I don’t read much fantasy, but I do like the novels and stories that are based on fairy tales. Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber is probably my favourite. I would definitely give this book a try if I came across.

    • The fantasy genre is getting bigger and bigger. I’m not much into those with a lot of supernatural beings like dragons and the like, although I occasionally enjoy the so-called dark fantasy with werewolves and vampires. Half of my family being from Brittany I grew up believing in werewolves… But, like you, I particularly like re-tellings of fairytales and think that they attract the more literary writers. Angela Carter does stand out for me too but someone like Tanith Lee is marvelous as well. So are LeGuin an of course McKillip. You can get very cheap second hand copies of her work.
      And Emma Donoghue’s Kissing the Witch… Her re-tellings are astonishing.

    • It is wonderful in many ways, yes. If you know the original then it will certainly be great to read this. I want to read the original but didn’t get the time yet. There is another retelling of Tam Lin that I got as well but haven’t read yet. Tithe by Holly Black. Maybe you know it?

    • I love magical realism but it’s quite different from this type of fantasy that is much more like a fairytale. Urban Fantasy is closest to magical realism. I loved the stories of Charls de Lint (DReams Underfoot). McKillip is really poetical, very special.

  6. I don’t read a lot of fantasy, so I’m afraid I have no suggestions for another of her books–I am supposed to be reading Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynn Jones (good reminder that I need to get back to it!) that retells the Tam Lin tale. It is interesting, though, how authors retell the same stories and turn them into something very different!

    • I was not aware of the Diana Wynn Jones to also be a retelling. I’m sure you mentioned it. I wasn’t familiar with the tale at the time so it didn’t stay in my mind, I guess. It seems to be one of those tales that has been used quite often and I will also have to read the original to see what they really did wiht it.
      I think McKillip appeals also to people who do not necessarily read a lot of fantasy but you need to enjoy fairy tales.

  7. The Alphabet of Thorn convinced me of McKillip’s wonderful writing and storytelling. It’s a book that would seem to be a lot less meaningful and interesting than it is, but it’s got an excellent story and a very cool progression.

    Winter Rose meanwhile seems to me like one of the last of McKillip’s books that I should read. The fact that it’s divisive yet many think it’s very good… I think I’ll leave it towards the end.

    • Thanks for your comment, I’m convinced now, I should try The Alphabet of Thorn. It’s probably a good decision to leave Winter Rose aside for the time being. I can really see why many readers didn’t like or even hated it. On the other hand it is the favourite of many others.

  8. How is “The Forgotten Beasts of Eld”? I was out walking and found a library with a used book store (not just a sale, a STORE) today and felt like I stumbled upon Mecca. They didn’t have “Winter Rose”, but did have that one, and it’s on my list to read soon.

    • That sounds like quite a find. Mecca indeed. When I read “The Forgotten Beasts of Eld” I liked it a lot. But it’s quite a while ago. It was one of my first fantasy novels. I guess that makes it special. It is very different from Winter Rose, more straightforward story telling. I would say it is one of my favourite fantasy novels. I finally ordered “The Alphabet of Thorns” after it has been mentioned quite a few times on this thread.

    • No, I wouldn’t. It could go wrong. 🙂 She is a wonderful writer but if you wouldn’t like this one you would maybe never read another one.
      I will read The Alphabet of Thorn next and it might also be a good starting point. All her writings have a fairy tale quality. Decidedly not dark fantasy.

  9. Pingback: Patricia A. McKillip: Solstice Wood (2006) « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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