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Winterstrike by Liz Williams

01/12/2008. Contributed by Sue Stewart

Buy Winterstrike in the USA - or Buy Winterstrike in the UK

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pub: TOR-UK. 358 page hardback. Price: 12.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-230-70931-7.

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Set on the Mars and Earth of the far future, 'Winterstrike' is mostly told from the points of view of two women, Essegui Harn and her cousin, Hestia Mar. Hestia is a spy for the Matriarchy of Winterstrike, working under cover in the opposing city of Caud. Essegui is a ceremonialist in Winterstrike itself.

Although the two women now have radically different lives. Hestia's one of risk and danger. Essegui's one of tradition and ritual. Some of their close kinship remains. They remember their childhood bonds and mourn for Essegui's younger sister who has broken a taboo and been made a prisoner in her own home. She is not allowed out of her room and has even been stripped of her name.

If Hestia's life has given her freedom of a kind, Essegui chafes against the restrictions that surround her under her mask of compliance. As an aristocrat and especially as a ceremonialist, she already has a privileged place in Winterstrike society. Furthermore, one of her mothers is working towards promotion to the city's ruling council, but Essegui is beginning to wonder whether that privilege is really worth its price.

The story begins with the Matriarchies of Winterstrike and Caud on the verge of declaring war on one another. Hestia, the spy, manages to gain access to a ruined Caudi library. Thanks to the intervention of the library's avatar, she finds and then downloads information about a powerful weapon to her superiors in Winterstrike. Soon after, a mystery weapon is used against Caud.

Consequently, Hestia finds herself wanted by the Caudi Matriarchy and having to get back to Winterstrike. At the same time, Essegui finds herself having to leave Winterstrike in pursuit of her younger sister who has vanished from her captivity. Their adventures take them far from home in pursuit of their aims. Hestia even flees to Earth. They both make extremely unsettling discoveries.

Although it is set in the same world as 'Banner Of Souls', you don't have to have read the earlier book to make sense of this one. It has a wonderfully gnarly, gothic atmosphere, although Liz Williams keeps a firm grip on her descriptions of setting, character and incident. She never loses control or lets them teeter over into farce. If the characters ever do appear ridiculous, the effect is definitely intentional.

In the end, though, for me the appeal of the book wasn't the characters. I'm not implying that there's anything wrong with them, because there isn't. They aren't cardboard cut-outs. Even the ones we're encouraged to dislike are engaging and interesting and I wanted to know where the plot was leading them but didn't feel for them. Hestia and Essegui are supremely self-assured, even when they insist they aren't, so I rarely felt like they were in real danger. Having said that, they're a million times better to read about than characters who scream helplessly and wait to be rescued, so I'm certainly not complaining.

It's the world that really sold this book to me. It's shadowy and strange yet disquietingly familiar. The haunt tech and haunt ships, the masks worn for the festivals, the monsters that are alleged to live out on the Martian plains and the chill inertia of life in Winterstrike. It gives a sense of repressed tension, of stultification, that is almost palpable and contrasts brilliantly with the explosions of violence and conflict. Then there's the drowned Earth with its altered but recognisable landscapes and place names, the Changed peoples and the barely remembered histories.

It's terrific stuff and I can't wait for the sequel. In fact, if I do have one quibble, it's with the ending. I want to know what happens next. Right now.

Sue Stewart

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