Monday, 28 May 2012

Winter Be My Shield by Jo Spurrier

Winter Be My Shield is Jo Spurrier’s debut novel and the first book of Children of the Black Sun trilogy. I was lucky enough to receive an advanced review copy of this book from Harper Voyager.

Set in a country where winter lasts about six months and involves piles of snow (much like the cover depicts), the story follows Sierra, Cam and Isidro. Sierra is a powerful mage but was enslaved by the sadistic Blood-Mage Kell and forced to feed him power while he tortured various prisoners. She was particularly valuable to Kell because the nature of her magic is such that she gains power when people near her are in pain. You can see how that might be handy to a torturer.

At the start of the novel, she escapes and falls in with other fugitives including the disinherited Prince Cam and his foster brother Isidro who is crippled after suffering torture which Sierra witnessed.

In the country of Riclan, where the action takes place, people with magical abilities are considered tainted and cursed by the gods. Children who show magical talents generally have their powers shackled even then are still considered dangerous and unlucky. Spurrier uses this to great effect to explore ideas of prejudice and discrimination. Despite the fact that Sierra only harms people that are trying to kill her, people are afraid of her and, more interestingly, have difficulty accepting that she isn’t evil. Almost no one offers her any consideration, even after she saves their lives. It’s very frustrating (in a good, well-written way) to see characters make stupid decisions because they’re afraid of her or because they want to profit somehow. It’s also satisfying when it comes back to bite them on the arse.

There are a lot of shades of grey in terms of character in Winter Be My Shield. There are the sympathetic central characters and there is the torturing Blood-Mage, Kell. But everyone else is caught somewhere in the middle. The characters that mistrust Sierra and try to hurt her aren’t necessarily bad people (OK some of them are), mostly they’re just acting based on how they’ve been brought up or past bad experiences. Kell’s apprentice, Rasten, is also more complicated than he originally appears to be. He was captured and broken (under torture) by Kell at an early age so how much of what he does is really his fault?

It was delightfully frustrating to watch (and heckle at the page) characters throw away their best hope of not dying (ie Sierra and her magic) out of misguided notions of evil. You know it’s a good book if it evokes such strong reactions.

Spurrier also brought up interesting questions in the way Isidro, the man crippled by torture, was treated. Those closest to him, like his brother Cam, were willing to do a lot to look after him. Other people with less of a connection see him as a useless burden. Of course, he’s sympathetic to the reader, but how much can one really blame the people who want to look out for themselves? Answer: it depends on how they go about it.

It’s been a little while since I read such an involved fantasy novel that wasn’t a sequel and/or by an established author. Winter Be My Shield is a striking debut and I look forward to reading the sequels (and hope it’s not too long a wait between them).

5 / 5 stars

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