Thursday, February 6, 2014

Review: The Winter Prince by Elizabeth Wein

cover art for The Winter Prince, featuring an ancient full-face helmet against a deep blue background
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Medrault is the eldest son of High King Artos of Camlan--and a bastard born of incest. Barred from all hope of the throne, he devotes himself to travel, hunting, and medicine, pursuits which keep him from Camlan for many years. He can ignore the reality of his birth in far-off Aksum and Byzantium, but it eats away at him when he returns to Britain. Though Medrault tries to forge a relationship with the fragile half-brother destined to succeed their father as High King, his mother’s dark influence taints everything he touches and leads him to question his place along the periphery of Artos’s court.

Elizabeth Wein came to my attention via her recent World War II novels, CODE NAME VERITY and ROSE UNDER FIRE. I read them, loved them, and was surprised to learn they were far from her only published fiction. Nearly twenty years ago, she released THE WINTER PRINCE, the first of five Arthurian retellings. The moment I learned this, I knew I had to get my hands on the series. While I’m admittedly not the biggest fan of all things Arthurian, I trust Elizabeth Wein to deliver something rich and compelling, no matter the subject at hand.

And oh, does she ever.

Despite my lack of unbridled enthusiasm for King Arthur and his court, I have a decent working knowledge of the mythology involved--as, I'm sure, do you. The basic story has a strong presence in most native English speakers' cultural subconscious, and the reader's prior knowledge is bound to colour her reaction to the text.

Wein is clearly aware of this, and she uses her story's baggage to great effect. The reader cannot help but recognize Medrault as Mordred, and thus as someone who plays a dark role in Arthur’s life. This adds an extra level of tension to the story, particularly given that there isn't much overt action herein. There are hunts and sparring matches strewn throughout the book, but Medrault’s emotional struggle lies at THE WINTER PRINCE's heart.

This is a subtle book, to put it mildly. Told from Medrault’s first person perspective, it relies as much on what he leaves out as on what he tells us. Since anyone who's read, heard, or seen the original story knows how things are supposed to end between him and Artos, we must treat him as an unreliable narrator. He tells us he acts in his half-brother Lleu's best interests, but can we believe him? How much has he left out? How often has he danced around certain details to lend himself an air of humility he may not deserve? Medrault is often self-critical, but the canny villain knows it’s important to admit one’s faults in order to divert suspicion from one's true aims.

Even if one accepts Medrault's tale at face value, it's clear he's left quite a bit out. His sparse hints at what he refuses to state plainly provide a fascinating glimpse of his inner life and show us a person in conflict with himself.

It is immediately apparent, too, that the book takes the form of a long letter from Medrault to his mother/aunt, Morgause. It drifts into the second person on occasion as he addresses her directly, or as he describes his interactions with her. The reader is left to wonder at the context in which the story exists. Why has Medrault written to Morgause instead of telling her his story face to face? Why does he feel the need to describe the missive’s intended recipient, who surely remembers everything that passed between them?

Many authors ignore these sorts of issues. Wein does not. She leaves no question unanswered, though she rarely comes out and explains things in a direct sense. She lets the reader put the pieces together for herself, weaving this scrap with that detail to form a complete portrait of Medrault as a person, and as a product of Morgause’s influence.

As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Medrault is a victim of physical, mental, and sexual abuse at his mother’s hands. Morgause wields his insecurities against him, exploiting each and every crack in his psyche for her own ends. It’s unclear when the abuse began, but it seems to have reached a head in the two years he spends with her immediately prior to THE WINTER PRINCE’s opening. His wintertime removal to Camlan takes on new meaning in light of this information, as do his treatment of his younger siblings, his relationship with his father, and the sense of himself he imparts through the quieter moments of his story.

Wein spells little of this out, but I would nonetheless brand the book with a hefty trigger warning. We only hear about two of Medrault’s physical scars in any detail, but his mental scars inform the entire text. There are strong hints, too, that Morgause has employed the same tactics with her legitimate sons, and that she likely visited similar treatment upon Artos prior to Medrault's conception.

Books like THE WINTER PRINCE are important, but they aren't necessarily safe for all readers. Please tread carefully if you think this might trigger you.

Rich and careful characterization aside, I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about the book until the last page. I admired the writing very much, and both the plotting and the characterization were wonderfully subtle, but it wasn’t until I saw the story in its entirety that I fully appreciated what Wein has done. THE WINTER PRINCE crashed into me the moment I read the last line. All at once, everything clicked into place. I’ve found myself unable to stop thinking about it in all the days since then, and I have no doubt it will linger with me for months to come.

If you enjoy Arthurian fiction, or if you’re a fan of Wein’s more recent books, you must seek out THE WINTER PRINCE. This wonderfully subtle and fully realized story of family, recovery, and discovery of the self is very much worth your time.

Links

While I always advocate your local library as the absolute best source for books, I recognize this may not be an option for everyone with a book like this one, which was out of print for many years and is now mostly available digitally. If you're in search of another way to read THE WINTER PRINCE, you can try:

I receive a small percentage of the purchase price if you buy the book through Kobo, The Book Depository, Amazon, or Audible. I get an extra month of Scribd if you sign up for a two-month free trial.

4 comments:

  1. I read this before Code Name, Verity and really didn't like it. Maybe I should try again...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think it's worth another shot, though I'll caution you that it really doesn't jump from "this is pretty good" to "this is amazing" until the very, very end. It's one of those books you have to see in its entirety.

      Delete
  2. I JUST added this to my wishlist yesterday! I do like Arthurian fiction, but more importantly I like stories about families and power struggles and whatnot. Yay!

    Thanks for the warning about the abuse, too; I like being prepared for reading about that sort of thing as it makes it easier to handle, I guess?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I often find that when I know a story contains abuse, I brace myself for the worst thing I can possibly imagine. Since I can imagine absolutely terrible things, the reality is almost as never bad as I feared. I mean, it's still bad, since abuse is never gonna be anything but awful, but I do a better job of dealing with it.

      Delete