Winterling by Sarah Prineas, 248 pp, RL 4


I think that it must be very hard for an author to create a fantasy story that has something different and new to recommend it. Of course, not everyone wants something different and new. In fact, children especially seem to enjoy the same things over and over endlessly (this is based on my experiences making hundreds of boxes of macaroni and cheese over the last eighteen years as well as reading the same picture books so often to a pre-reader that they had to be hidden so that mommy did not go nutty.) I think that Sarah Prineas' newest book, Winterling, with fantastic cover art by Jason Chan, the go-to guy for fantasy book with strong girl characters, jumps these hurdles with a rich combination of both familiar and new. Winterling has the traditional orphaned child who learns that she is the heir to something great (magical power, a throne, maybe both) and must gather her courage to ultimately vanquish the evil that has robbed her of her parents, power, throne or all three. Prineas, who recently taught honors seminars on fantasy and science fiction literature at the University of Iowa and is also the author of the Magic Theif trilogy, clearly knows the genre and its familiar themes. With Winterling she incorporates folklore like the Green Man, an ancient symbol for several cultures that has many meanings, most of which have to do with the bringing of life and rebirth related to the Spring season. She also uses figures from Irish mythology such as the Phouka/Puck, a changeling sprite, and Mór, a relation to the Morrígan, a goddess of battle, strife and fertility. To this folklore Prineas adds a layer of magic in the use of herbs and spells that connects the main character and her grandmother to nature and each other, with herbs also helping her to understand how to heal the dying world she was born in.

Winterling begins with Fer, short for Jennifer, and her miserable life. At school she is teased and at home she is closely guarded and strictly raised by her father's mother, Grand-Jane. Living out in the country in farmland where her grandmother grows herbs and keeps bees, Fer rides the bus to school. Once on the bus, Fer feels physically worse and worse the closer she gets to her school. Headaches plague her until she returns home each day, where Grand-Jane waits for her at the bus stop making sure she comes directly home. A few pages in to Winterling I was happily reminded of Anne Ursu's incredible book Breadcrumbs, which also features an outsider main character struggling with school and home life, especially when, like Hazel in Breadcrumbs, Fer heads off into the woods. Fer is driven by frustration at the circumscribed life she is forced to live with no idea why she is living this way. Grand-Jane answers none of her questions and will reveal nothing about her parents or why Fer must live such a sheltered life. Fed up with Grand-Jane's treatment, Fer storms out of the house and into the woods where she witnessed something that changes her life forever.

When she stumbles upon a perfectly round pond gleaming in the moonlight Fer is drawn to touch it. Unknowingly, her touch opens the Way (and there is more than one Way) and a creature comes bounding out of the water, followed by a pack of wolves. Before they can kill the creature, Fer swings at them with a branch and they flee. As she approaches, she sees that the creature is not an animal but a boy. Bleeding and weak, Fer drags him back to Grand-Jane who refuses to let him in the house, seeing him for the puck that he is. The appearance of the puck-boy forces Grand-Jane to tell Fer the little that she knows about the Way and the world beyond it, where her mother was from. She gives Fer a wooden box with the name Owen, her father, carved into it. The box holds a photo of Owen, a letter from him to Grand-Jane, a bag of herbs, a glossy black feather and a round stone with a hole in the middle. Wanting to know more, Fer gets off the bus a stop early and heads back to the Way. Passing through, she sees the puck-boy again and he tells her that the Lady invites her to come. In most books, this is the point in the story where the main character heads off, if not a bit blindly and foolishly, to meet her adventure. What I love about Prineas' story is that Fer does not do this. She tells the puck-boy that she cannot leave Grand-Jane worrying about her. She promises to return then runs home to Grand-Jane to tell her she is going through the Way. Although Grand-Jane fiercely refuses, she realizes she can't stop Fer and prepares her for her journey with protective spells and herbs and what little else she knows about the land. She also instructs Fer about the importance of oaths, promises and the rule of three.

How Fer's newly gained knowledge and her way with spells and herbs helps her as she tries to unravel the mystery of the Lady (yet another authority figure who will not answer her questions) plays out over a landscape that is in the grips of winter and a people who are increasingly falling ill with a strange disease. Prineas' writing, of the landscape especially, is very visually descriptive. Because Fer has an innate connection with the land and because of her childhood raised around herbs and plants, Winterling is filled with plants, trees, and earthy smells. One of my favorite passages comes when Fer passes through the Way, one that is not water but earth:

She fell through darkness. Dirt folded in around her, pressing up against her face, her arms and legs, covering her like a blanket. She tried to shout, and dirt filled her mouth. With her hands she pushed the dirt away; it moved, like heavy water. Holding her breath, squeezing her eyes closed, she kicked her feet and felt herself moving through the dirt. She reached out again and, like parting curtains, she brushed the dirt aside. Light streamed in. Fer fell into the light, then tumbled down a bumpy slope, out from under the roots, landing on the path before the oak tree.

Finally, one of the things I love most about Winterling is that Prineas has written a fantasy novel for middle grade readers that is not 400+ pages long like most these days. Where it once was a badge of honor to read a book that long (thanks to JK Rowling) not all kids want to or are capable of reading the massive tomes that are still hitting the shelves of the kid's section. There are plenty of readers who enjoy fantasy but are unenthusiastic about a huge book, and Winterling is just right for them.

In a very cool (to me) side note, Sarah Prineas mentions a children's bookseller in her Acknowledgements, thanking Beth Yost of Cover to Cover Children's Booksellers in Columbus Ohio. Apparently a comment Ms Yost inspired Prineas in the writing of Winterling!  How awesome is that?

If you enjoyed Winterling you might also like (besides Breadcrumbs, mentioned above with link to my review):

A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz
Heir Apparent by Vivianne Vande Velde
The Mistmantle Chronicles by M.I. McAllister
The Princess Curse by Merrie Haskell. I haven't finished reading this book, but it has a medieval setting and a strong and stubborn main character with an education in herbal remedies.

SUMMERKIN, the sequel, is due out April 23rd, 2013!

The fantastic cover art for Winterling was created by Jason Chan, who has done several other wonderful covers for middle grade and young adult title, including the last two covers for Ellen Potter, one of my favorite authors. Chan's artwork graces the covers of The Kneebone Boy and The Humming Room, both by Potter.

Chan also did the covers for Merrie Haskell's The Princess Curse, which looks really good and is on my TBR list, as is Victoria Forester's The Girl Who Could Fly.


Finally, Chan did the covers for Lisa Mantchev's young adult trilogy, Théâtre Illuminata, which features characters from every play ever written.

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