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.