REVIEW: The Winter Duke by Claire Eliza Bartlett

4/5 stars — an atmospheric tale of political intrigue and unexpected affection

In the frozen kingdom of Kylma Above, Ekaterina escapes the deadly web of her hostile family in an unexpected way when her parents and siblings fall into a slumber from which no one can wake them. As the only remaining member of the ruling family, Ekata becomes the Winter Duke. She hopes the position will be temporary, and strives to awaken her family so Kylma Above can return to the status quo and she can leave to attend university and further her medical studies. Things I liked - the concept of the twin kingdoms of Kylma Above and Kylma Below, each dependent on the other for resources - the fairy tale melange resulting in a frozen kingdom filled with roses, a sleeping family, and a marriage of convenience - a slow burn romance that didn’t take up much page time compared to the main plot - Inkar, an absolutely swoonworthy love interest (“Do not fear him. I would fight him for my wife’s honor.” Adorable!) - a queernorm setting: gender-neutral pronouns for a few minor characters; no one really comments on the same-sex aspect of Ekata marrying one of her brother’s potential brides, just the political implications - a protagonist whose strengths lie in academic learning and who has little to no physical prowess - the terrifying antagonist, a creepy kind of guy lots of women probably find familiar (“His eyes shone with something worse than hate: the fury of a powerful man hearing ‘no.’”) - Ekata confronting the double standard that a man displaying anger is considered powerful but a woman doing the same is throwing a tantrum - all the dangerous political maneuverings and betrayals - THE COVER

Things I disliked - “Grand dukes didn’t,” “Grand dukes were,” and all variations of that phrase. It’s something of a mantra for Ekata until she realizes trying to imitate her father’s style of leadership is a bad idea but I found it more comical than useful to the narrative after the first few times. - Ekata frustrated me throughout the book for not seizing opportunities to pass the trials she faced. Maybe her opponent Sigis would have won anyway, but half the time it felt like Ekata floundered uselessly instead of trying to seek out supporters or find a way to beat him. - how little the magic was developed: I get that how to use it is supposed to be a secret for a lot of the book, but the magic was more woven into the world than something people used. This one’s pretty subjective on my part. - the pacing: After a breakneck first two chapters that left me wonderfully immersed in the world and biting my nails over the plot, the pace slowed considerably, dragged in the second act, and seemed rushed toward the end. This isn’t quite a fairy tale retelling, but will likely appeal to fans of the retelling subgenre. I recommend it to readers who want a little romance and a lot of politics, with a side helping of protagonist self-discovery to round things out. Fans of plot-driven books: this is for you! Content warnings: abusive/murderous siblings and parents, comatose family members