The Winter Duke, by Claire Eliza Bartlett

Review copy provided by the author, who is a personal friend and represented by the same agent as me.

One of the things I often talk about most enthusiastically in my blog series about long-established older writers is their breadth of ideas. My favorite writers often have a scope that makes me happy, ideas where one book will be wildly different from another. This is only Claire’s second book, but already she’s displaying the kind of range that I praise in authors with decades-long careers.

Claire’s first book, We Rule the Night, was a breathless adventure in magical airplanes, inspired by the Soviet Union’s Night Witches, all fire and fight. The Winter Duke is like the ice roses that pervade its castle: chilly and perfectly formed, ready to melt at a touch.

Ekata is one of the many middle children in the ducal family of Kylma Above. One of her siblings will be the heir, but she has always known that it would not be her. She would go off to university to study the natural world and be far, far from her murderously squabbling family. The only thing she expected to miss about Kylma Above was its proximity to Kylma Below–the realm below the frozen lake that is the source of the magic harvest, a fascination to Ekata’s keenly curious mind.

And then disaster strikes. Just as her brother is about to choose a spouse, Ekata’s entire family is struck down by an unprecedented–and apparently magical–plague. She is the only one left conscious. She must take the reins of political power–and with them the reins of magical power above the lake’s surface, in the air-breathing human realms–before someone takes them from her.

Someone like her extremely gross foster brother Sigis.

And when you ask, “You and what army?”, Sigis is like, “Oh, this army right here that I brought with me,” and I hate him and would like to throw him off a cliff.

On the other hand, there is Ekata’s newest ally…her temporary bride, Inkar. Inkar is fierce, Inkar is determined, and Inkar is incredibly confused by the culture she’s dealing with here. Basically half of Inkar’s dialog can be paraphrased as “YOU WHAT BUT WHY.” And since she is dealing with a very icy region…look, we get this a lot, okay? So Inkar is very relatable, not for me, but for…basically everyone who visits me. Inkar is how people are.

And then the magic, the magic under the frozen lake, oh, oh that is so…so very right. It fits, it works, it is so much fun but not in a…fluffy ponies on a picnic way. This is magic red in tooth and claw, this is the kind of magic that spawns the kind of duchy we see above it. This is a world with room to improve, and characters fighting to improve it. And themselves. Which is very like We Rule the Night, but also completely different.

Well done, Claire. Highly recommended.

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