Winterbirth by Brian Ruckley


AuthorBrian Ruckley

Trade Paperback
Pages: 576 pages
Publisher: Orbit
Release Date: September 10, 2007
ISBN-10: 0316067695
ISBN-13: 978-0316067690

Winterbirth was a milestone for me. Orbit Books (the publisher) was the first publisher to approach me and offer to send me advance review copies of their novels and it seemed to validate the existence of A Dribble of Ink. Ironically, I actually received it a couple of months ago but agreed with Alex Lencicki (Ruckley’s publicist) that it would be best to hold of on the review (and interview) until Winterbirth was closer to its US publication date.

So, it was with great eagerness that I finally picked up Winterbirth and began reading. While my copy sat for several weeks, taunting me, I watched several other reviews roll in, all of which confirmed that I should be eager to read the novel. Winterbirth had a lot to live up to when I finally started reading it; the hype was sky high.

So the question is: did it live up to the hype? Well, Yes and No.

My first impressions of Winterbirth were strong. The setting was new, fresh and exceptionally intriguing; Ruckley’s writing had better flow and was easier to read than I expected; equal screen time was given to both sides of the conflict, creating a sense of torn loyalties within me, sometimes I empathized more with the “Bad Guys” than I did with the “Good Guys”. So far, so good. I started to tear through the beginning on the novel in no time. I found Ruckley’s prose to be nothing special at worst and almost poetic at best. He’s at his strongest and most eloquent when he’s describing the bleak, snowy world in which Winterbirth takes place, deftly drawing a vivid picture in the mind of the reader.

As I continued with the novel, however, Winterbirth lost me a little. For every unique, exciting element to Ruckley’s novel (the setting, some elements of the magic system, the history of the world, etc…) there was another element that had been seen a hundred times before (young man of Royal blood being thrown into a hairy situation, “evil” invading army, elves-that-aren’t-called-elves-but-everyone-knows-they-are-elves, etc…). The Godless World Trilogy (of which Winterbirth is the first novel) is based around the concept of… *drumroll* a world lacking gods. It’s a terrific concept, but I would have liked to see this particular quirk have more of a role in the story. Ruckley’s world, lacking gods, seems not much different than those world’s that have gods. Now, it’s not to say that these standard Fantasy elements ruined the novel, but I felt that they contradicted the innovation and “freshness” found in the rest of Ruckley’s novel. It also felt like some events happened a little too easily and cleanly for some of the protagonists, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that Ruckley took the easy way out.

One of the strengths of Winterbirth is that Ruckley tells the story through eyes of characters on both side of the conflict. He uses this to great effect by jumping around through Point of views (POVs) to keep the story, which in reality has a slow moving plot, feeling quick and energetic. As soon as the story of one POV character starts to slow down he switches gears and takes us half way across the world.

Another bit of praise I can bestow upon the novel is that it brings to mind memories of Tad William’s epic Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. I think much of this feeling can be attributed to two things: the setting and the Kyrinin. I’ve spoken of the setting, a beautiful and rugged reflection of the Scottish landscape, but I’ve said little about Ruckley’s version of elves. The Kyrinin resemble typical elves in many ways but Ruckley makes one major diversion from the norm that really sets them apart. You see, these Kyrinin really don’t like each other much, and it’s nice to see Ruckley take an approach to “elves” that doesn’t make them all look like peace-loving “Good Guys”. The Kyrinin are maelstroms of emotion and there’s no black and white with them, only shades of grey. They are terrifying and spiritual at the same time, and it’s obvious that the vicious civil war erupting in Winterbirth is only going to get bloodier as the trilogy moves on.

Winterbirth has its ups and downs, but in the end it left me wanting more. The ending is a mixed bag (one storyline seems to lack a climax, another has an incredible ending soaked in religious symolism), but it’s obvious that Ruckley is setting up the next two novels. Winterbirth was originally released in 2006, alongside other debut novels such as The Lies of Locke Lamora and The Blade Itself, and while Winterbirth isn’t quite as strong as these novels, it’s still definitely worth a look if only for the terrific setting and the twists Ruckley makes on some of the Fantasy mainstays.

  • Jebus October 16, 2007 at 8:29 pm

    Hmmm, almost picked this up a couple days ago but went for the first two books in Joe Abercrombie’s series and the second Locke book instead. Glad I did, I think I’ll wait until the whole series is out before making an attempt on this.

    Thanks for the succinct yet informative review (I detest long reviews) – great work!

  • SQT October 16, 2007 at 10:28 pm

    Excellent review. I think I liked it a little more than you, but I am reading “The Blade Itself” now and I really like it. I think if I had read “Blade” first my impression of “Winterbirth” would have suffered. I haven’t finish “Lies of Locke Lamora” yet either, so “Winterbirth” didn’t have the competition in my mind that it does now– if that makes any sense.

    I still look forward to the sequel though. I want to see how the magical elements evolve.

  • Tia Nevitt October 17, 2007 at 1:46 am

    I’m glad to see such an honest review. Your comment about elves so resonates with me, and I do get weary of princes and princesses. However, I have not read a heroic fantasy in a long time and I’ve been wanting to pick this up.

  • The Book Swede October 17, 2007 at 7:43 am

    I liked the fact that you mentioned that they were similar to elves, yet had their differences.

    I really liked the fact that it’s the half-breed na’kyrim who, in a way, are the ones that do any kicking of ass. In most fantasy novels, the elves can turn into a deus ex machina type.

    Good review, as has been said, short and succinct — I’ll have to bear in mind what Jebus says about long reviews … mine are getting longer and longer. Different styles :D

    Nice review, here ;)


  • Shawn Speakman October 17, 2007 at 9:29 am

    Aidan, you and I should discuss what is different about my novel compared to Ruckley’s. I see some small parallels there from reading your review.

    I’m still happy that Winterbirth left you wanting more though. That’s a good sign for this new group of writers rising up.


  • aidan October 17, 2007 at 1:49 pm

    RE: jebus – I think waiting for the whole series is probably a good idea. As the first third of an experience, Winterbirth does a good job of setting things up and the lack of a climax would seem less substantial if you had the follow-up novel sitting there waiting for you.

    Don’t get me wrong, though! The book is definitely worth your time.

    RE: SQT – Glad you enjoyed the review. The magic elements of Winterbirth were definitely some of the most intriguing parts of the novel. Can’t wait to see where Ruckley takes the na’kyrim as the trilogy moves on.

    RE: Tia – If you’re looking for a heroic fantasy, I think you’ll enjoy Winterbirth. Ruckley took that flag and really ran with it. The problem you might have is deciding exactly who the heroes are!

    RE: Chris – Like I said in my reply to SQT, the na’kyrim are definitely one of the most intriguing, and freshest, aspects of Winterbirth. Ruckley definitely hit the nail on the head there.

    I find it funny that both you and Jebus mention that my reviews are short and succinct, I was worried that they might have been too long! When it comes to writing a review I try to look at the important parts and leave out the parts that don’t really matter. You’ll notice that I don’t summarize the story at all, something that I always skim over in other reviews and helps keep the length of my reviews down.

    RE: Shawn – I’ve actually been meaning to talk to you about Winterbirth. You’re right that your novels share similarities in theme and story elements, but at the same time approach story telling from pretty different angles. We’ll talk soon.

  • Rob B October 17, 2007 at 4:17 pm

    I think part of the problem with this book is that it received some praise when it was prevously published in the UK. I was hoping for more in the book, but I think you enjoyed the book more than I did.

  • J.G.Thomas October 18, 2007 at 1:45 pm

    Good review Aidan. It’s interesting to see you feel much the same way about Winterbirth as I do. I liked the setting, the background and the ‘magic’ system but unfortunately didn’t really connect with any of the characters. I felt the Orisian storyline actually dragged a bit in places. At times I felt rather apathetic towards the story, not really convinced whether I cared enough about the characters to find out what happened. I’m still not totally sure whether I’ll pick up the sequel. It maybe didn’t help matters that I read Winterbirth not long after Abercrombie and Lynch, and at times I missed the odd bits of black humour and wit, as Ruckley’s prose is quite serious-minded. No doubt however that there is scope there for a good sequel, and I do hope the notion of the Godless world plays a larger role in the rest of the series.

  • Graeme October 22, 2007 at 11:59 am

    I’m someone else who enjoyed the book more than you! It’s good to see both sides of the coin though! ;o) I’ve heard that the action is going to kick up a notch in the next book so I’m hoping more good times are ahead!

  • Beefeater October 23, 2007 at 5:02 am

    Excellent review and a wonderful site! Great to see someone doing this.

    I really enjoyed Winterbirth, and the starting sequence was superb. One thing I felt was that Brian Ruckley was better at the more intimate action scenes (the storming of a castle is very well done with the individual duels excellently described) than at the grander set-piece battles, but overall it’s still a cracking read and very much worth the time and money.

  • aidan October 23, 2007 at 11:01 am

    RE: Rob B – It looks like I did enjoy it more than you did, but I also think that you’re right when you say that the hype hurt my perception on the novel more than it helped.

    RE: J.G. Thomas – I think as a first effort, Ruckley did a commendable job and there’s definitely enough scope for a sequel.

    RE: Graeme – If the action kicks up in Bloodheir, then that’ll definitely be a good thing! I’m glad you enjoyed the novel!

    RE: Beefeater – Glad you like the site, I’ve worked by buns off to get it here, so it’s nice to know it’s appreciated!

    I can’t argue that Ruckley does a great job with both the intimate action scenes.

  • […] I approach Brian Ruckley, author of the acclaimed Winterbirth (REVIEW) and the newly released Bloodheir, a couple of weeks ago about an interview, he suggested we buck […]