Winterglass, by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
Publisher: Apex Publications
Release Date: December 5, 2017
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
The city-state Sirapirat once knew only warmth and monsoon. When the Winter Queen conquered it, she remade the land in her image, turning Sirapirat into a country of snow and unending frost. But an empire is not her only goal. In secret, she seeks the fragments of a mirror whose power will grant her deepest desire.
At her right hand is General Lussadh, who bears a mirror shard in her heart, as loyal to winter as she is plagued by her past as a traitor to her country. Tasked with locating other glass-bearers, she finds one in Nuawa, an insurgent who’s forged herself into a weapon that will strike down the queen.
To earn her place in the queen’s army, Nuawa must enter a deadly tournament where the losers’ souls are given in service to winter. To free Sirapirat, she is prepared to make sacrifices: those she loves, herself, and the complicated bond slowly forming between her and Lussadh.
If the splinter of glass in Nuawa’s heart doesn’t destroy her first.
This is a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” in only the most tangential of ways: both stories share the figure of the Winter Queen, and the mirror shards, but nothing else. The Winter Queen is a fascinatingly remote figure, chillingly alien and powerful even at a distance. Her influence, however, is constantly evident. The eternal winter that cloaks Sirapirat, and the ways in which it has forced the city and its people to change under its presence, show us the insidious effects of colonialism. The ghost-powered technology, which force the living to use the dead in order to survive in the Queen’s remaking of the world, is the part of Winterglass that felt most compelling. The mirror shards, however, as part of the worldbuilding and the catalyst for the story, were mostly forgotten and under-explained. This, combined with the Winter Queen’s practically non-existent reasons for searching for the shards, means that a lot of the story has to be taken on faith.
For a refreshing turn of events, being queer is pretty much the norm in Sirapirat and the wider world, and Winterglass makes sure to include those who are not cisgendered. Lussadh falls into this latter category, as do multiple side characters. While the side characters are immediately identified by the text as gender non-conforming, the text initially supports reading Lussadh as a cis woman, and then as a trans woman, but then a late comment by Nuawa indicates that Lussadh is neither man nor woman. I’ll leave evaluation of the representation here to others who are more qualified. I found Lussadh to be a deeply interesting and compelling character who was given a bad hand and is trying to make the best of it. Nuawa, on the other hand, suffers from plot-inflicted ignorance, and pretty much just wanders from Point A to Point B, stumbling across the next event to move the story forward.
And it’s this latter point that sunk my enjoyment of the story. The plot feels like it’s just events strung together for no compelling reason, and the prose feels like it’s working overtime to distract us from the fact that there’s nothing going on. Winterglass feels longer than it actually is, and all real confrontations and questions are completely avoided. We don’t learn anything more than what we started with, and when I got to the end, it felt as if nothing of actual importance had happened at any point in the story. I ended this novella with very mixed feelings. There are some great things in it, but it ultimately felt like a very pretty shell of a story, with the insides half-baked.
Benjanun Sriduangkaew writes love letters to strange cities, beautiful bugs, and the future. Her work has appeared on Tor.com, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, Apex Magazine, and year’s best collections. She has been shortlisted for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and her debut novella Scale-Bright has been nominated for the British SF Association Award.
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I received an advanced copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review.