A duchy of ice and snow above, a duchy of water and magic below, separated only by a lake of ice. Both dependent upon one another and both as violent as they are beautiful.
Ekata is a middle child within the Avenko royal family: a family who are intent on murdering each other to get to the throne. However, Ekata has no interest in the throne at all: her interests lie in biology rather than brokering treaties and she wants nothing more than to leave Kylma Above and attend university.
However, at the age of thirteen, Ekata wakes to find herself the only member of her family who has not been cursed into a permanent sleep. Suddenly, she is the Grand Duke and is expected to prove herself worthy to rule Kylma Above: conquering the world of politics and magic in order to find a way to wake her family and avoid death herself.
The Winter Duke spans only six days in its storyline. Nonetheless, this does not diminish the journey that Bartlett takes her readers on: there are twists at every turn and almost everyone seems like a villain; neither Ekata nor the reader knows whom they can trust.
Although this is very much Ekata’s story, there are so many characters surrounding her that there is a danger some of these may seem undeveloped. Thankfully, I didn’t feel this way at all. Bartlett brings something different to each character she introduces: from Sigis’ immediate repulsiveness; Eirhan’s deadpan nature and Inkar’s flirty charms. All the characters have their part to play and, although keeping track of all the ministers could be difficult at times, this only added to the overwhelming suffocation that Ekata must be feeling.
Ekata herself is an amazing protagonist: at just thirteen she makes a number of impulsive decisions which end disastrously – so why do we, as a reader, not get frustrated with her? Again, I feel that this is due, in part, to the dizzying number of secondary characters. The reader witnesses the sheer number of commitments that fall onto the shoulders of one who never aspired to this role: we attend unwanted proposals; hear the accusations of murdering her own family; comprehend that she is used as a pawn by her Prime Minister and constantly see Ekata’s authority undermined due to her sex. It is impossible not to empathise with her desperate need to return to her normal life.
Sexism plays a large part in Ekata’s story, with Sigis immediately heralded as the solution to her problems due to his position as a strong man with an army. Inkar is also underestimated due to being female: before she then shatters these perceptions with her axes, her willingness to fight and her protective nature over Ekata.
However, The Winter Duke has to be commended for the gender fluidity within its pages. The brideshow is made of men and women, at least one minister is non-binary and the only romance within this novel is between two queer females. This was such a natural romance as well, slow-burning and cautious due to the politics involved but one that, when the walls of both women came down, could achieve the impossible.
The world building by Claire Eliza Bartlett in this novel is second to none. Kylma Above is impressive with its ice palaces and winter roses invading every corner. However, Kylma Below, the duchy below the ice is magical and sinister in equal measure. With fields of magic, sharks used in tribunals, and coral gardens, it wasn’t only Ekata who wanted to explore further.
Quite a few YA novels recently have included queer women smashing the patriarchy. This is the first one I have read where they smash the autocracy.
Ekata’s journey to find out what kind of ruler she will be is encapsulating and riveting. In a story where the betrayal just keeps coming, Ekata remains loyal to the end – despite the epilogue proving that this is never appreciated. The world of Kylma was immersive and the themes of politics, murder, sexism and violence are swept up by the breezy writing style to create a book that was impossible to put down.
Thank you to Netgalley for giving me the opportunity to read and review this wonderful novel.