What is this productivity? Back to back reviews? Adjusting to the new job has been a thing, but I think I’m getting into the balance now and hopefully dealing with the backlog of reviews. Anyway, today I am here with a review of Winter’s Dawn by Arden Powell.
Thomas Brighton, a professor of theoretical magic, has been accused of treason. Imprisoned in the bleak Blackwood Gaol as he awaits his trial, he is cut off from his magic and his studies: a fate worse than death for the scholar who has devoted his life to academia. His only company is Winter, the mysterious prisoner in the neighbouring cell. As Thomas’ trial drags nearer, their whispered conversations are the only thing keeping him from giving in to boredom and despair.
Winter is a radical, a murderer, and a traitor to the crown. Everything Thomas fears and looks down on. But as Blackwood continues to crush his spirit and his magic, Winter might be his only ally. And Thomas might be Winter’s only chance of escape. Because if Blackwood and its guards don’t kill them both, the hangman’s noose surely will.
Winter’s Dawn is a 24,000-word fantasy novella with a male lead and a nonbinary love interest. It is part of the Flos Magicae series, set in an alternate 1920s universe with magic. All the stories are standalone historical fantasy romances and can be read in any order.
Winter’s Dawn is the first work by Powell that I’ve read, and while it left me with somewhat mixed feelings in the end it won’t be the last.
Firstly, I have to say that I loved the setting and the worldbuilding. Powell does an absolutely stunning job of capturing the sheer bleakness of the prison, the cold, the loneliness, the looming presence of the prison walls, and their magic-repressing abilities were remarkably visceral. The atmosphere almost took on a life of its own in this novella and was utterly enthralling, even as it left you almost feeling chilled to your core. That feeling in turn feeds into some of the main themes of isolation and loneliness, the writing is so emotive, and the setting so evocative, that it was impossible not to feel for those living within the present; and it was easy to see how their minds could wander, and they could question everything to try and keep that isolation and bleakness at bay. And how, devoid of distraction, the characters – especially Thomas – could turn to introspection, and be confronted by those aspects of their life that were revealed when everything was stripped away.
In many ways, Thomas was the perfect gateway to this insular world of the prison. Wrongfully imprisoned, but also not innocent – he was ill-equipped for life within those walls and the impact of isolation, and this story was a journey of undoing to finding himself. I found the theoretical magic aspect and Thomas’ life at the university, to be the weakest aspect of his character (and the driest part of the book) – although I think part of that was just because I would have liked to see more development of that aspect, it was a fascinating idea for a magical system and society shaped around it, and I think in a longer book it would have been a stronger aspect. As it was, it intrigued me but left me wanting more than wasn’t forthcoming.
Winter was a different matter and left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, they were a compelling character and a fantastic counterpart to Thomas. Wild magic was theoretical magic. Chaos to the ordered life Thomas had lived. Violent and radical, in comparison to Thomas’ crimes. There was certainly something that made me want to read more about them, and I am always happy to encounter well-written non-binary characters, but there was so much about them that I wanted to know more about. The element of mystery worked to an extent, but I guess I found myself just wanting more.
The romantic aspect was the one that worked the least for me. Not so much because there wasn’t any chemistry between Winter or Thomas, or grounds for them to seek companionship with one another. Given the situation, the looming threat of death, the bleakness of their surroundings and the weight of isolation and loneliness, it feels natural that they would reach out to the one person they could communicate with regularly. And, I did like that there were cautious steps to begin with, and differences of opinion. But, it felt like there was too much weight put on the relationship by the end for the time that had passed, and I wasn’t sold on it having reached that stage – I could see it being a work in progress, and I liked the aspect of exploring the human need for connection that is woven throughout, but it felt more like a friendship that was masquerading as something more. And this in turn weakened the ending for me, as I found myself looking for something more than the relationship between the two of them.
So, yeah mixed feelings. On the one hand, the setting and the atmosphere were fantastic, and I really enjoyed Powell’s prose. But, the characters and the romance just left me wanting something more. Still, this was an enjoyable read, and an excellent exploration of loneliness and seeking human connection and introspection.