I would recommend Christelle Dabos’ A Winter’s Promise solely on the basis that the hero is asexual and aromantic presenting, but if you are just looking for an unconventional heroine in Young Adult Fantasy? You will enjoy this French import.
A Winter’s Promise (Book 1: The Mirror Visitor) by Christelle Dabos
Translated from French by Hildegarde Serle
Europa Editions, Sept. 2018.
Hardcover, 468 pages. Ages 16+
The quiet and reserved Ophelia just wanted to be left alone to her Museum of Primitive History and keep the arks’ Archives at hand. A diplomatically fraught betrothal to a man from a distant clan means she’ll see neither again. The ark upon which her fiancé Thorn lives is a mystery to her and her clan–and decidedly more dangerous than she could have imagined.
On Anima, everyone descends as one clan from their immortal ancestral spirit Artemis. As animists, each have some ability over mundane objects. Her godmother and chaperone can mend paper. Her godfather can mend anything broken. Ophelia is an especially gifted reader; when she touches an object with her bare hands, she goes back into its history. She also has the rare ability to travel through mirrors.
Ophelia is ill-prepared and ill-informed, and sometimes just ill because she’s susceptible to colds and Pole is freezing. There is no obvious means of escape from her fate as Thorn’s wife-to-be. From the onset, you’ll sympathize with her desperation to escape the lifestyle on Pole and a marital situation of which she wants no part. But it only becomes that much more tenuous on both fronts and you begin to feel genuinely trapped and concerned. (I need the rest of the series!)
Thorn is from Pole and lives on its capital city, Citaceleste (see book cover). Their ark’s spirit is Lord Farouk who begat multiple clans who keep strict clansmen lines and fight not only for their positions of power, but for their existence. Each clan has a special ability and it is interesting to see how they use it to create balance and imbalance; cooperatively and with aggression. Pole offers a court intrigue that not only involves vying for Lord Farouk’s favor, but genocide–they’re lovely people. Chabos isn’t messing around with how vicious the inhabitants can be; the violence is chilling. (Knight genuinely scares me.)
The arks are a product of the Rupture of the Earth’s surface, free-floating land masses orbiting a molten core. Ophelia and company use airships to travel between them, although other means are introduced later. We catch glimpses of the idea of a few other arks. I’m particularly intrigued by the one the Architect of Citaceleste comes from. Architect in a present tense, because Citaceleste is always changing, rooms created and erased, shifting in and out of planes. Pair the shifting architecture with the illusions the Mirage clan create and Citaceleste truly is a marvel, and a threat.
Christelle Dabos’ world-building is well-crafted and well-worth the read. But my fascination is with the characters she’s populated her world with and how A Winter’s Promise interrogates the Young Adult (YA) Fantasy genre here.
Diversity/representation is a continual conversation, and I was thinking about it again as I considered the unusual existence of A Winter’s Promise. The heroine is remarkably different in presentation from mainstream YA Fantasy’s protagonists.
Ophelia is asexual, aromantic, slight of frame, clumsy, easily susceptible to colds (and develops tonsillitis). She wears a neck brace for a time, vomits all over the place at one point, has poor eyesight (good thing her glasses can heal), has little sense of direction. She mumbles, has a small, whispery voice, her brown eyes hide behind glasses and heavy brown unruly hair. And I’m interested in how rarely she uses her animist powers—at least not until after page 300.
YA Fantasy is a gold mine of “strong female protagonists,” but like the popular girl in school who finds an entourage of girls trying to shape themselves in her image, so too is the YA market. How many protagonists did we fold into the likeness of Katniss Everdeen?
Many writers can and will create a slight variation on the strong female protagonist; provide her with what amounts to a quirk. And I wonder if it enough. Sometimes, A Winter’s Promise is uncomfortable to settle into because how often the reader’s expectations are trying to interfere or intervene with the narrative. [For example, Ophelia and Thorn’s relationship is a beautiful piece of work. I think A Winter’s Promise will prove the most challenging for the romance-leaning readers.] But it casts a glaring light on the problem of defined genres.
A genre’s expectations can begin to wear on you until you wear it. It begins with just a natural desire to escape into a book; to go along on an adventure with or as a character, visit/don their thoughts, relationships, spaces, struggles, triumphs. After a time–returning to the consequences of a single narrative—you start to believe that you have to be a certain way, a certain type of person to go on these adventures. You are doing more than shedding your skin for theirs, but internally compromising parts of your self worth.
As a heroine, Ophelia not only challenges the normal strong female protagonist, but she directly engages with the threat of believing she has to do and act and be a certain way to not only succeed, but to survive. A majority of the novel is a court intrigue populated by actual creators of illusions, including one sort of illusion she is forced to wear–and while doing so answer by another name (one that comes without a voice). By the end of the novel she is tired of hiding, tired of participating in other people’s games, and certainly done with playing by other people’s rules.
Important to the narrative is how it is set in third person limited, we’re not asked to be a first person (“I”) Ophelia; we are invited to come along on Ophelia’s journey. It is important to the novel and its protagonist that Ophelia is Ophelia–even when she is a sister, daughter, fiancé, or Mime. By the end of the novel, this is what she has to remember, that who and how she is is good enough, and will have to be.
Part of the mystery of the novel is why Ophelia was chosen as the betrothed. In some ways, the reasons aren’t as grand as fantasy narratives trend. More interesting is how we see a divergence in how the plot chooses her for its reasons, and the narrative chooses her for other reasons. [Do not skim past Ophelia’s conversation with her godfather as he is saying good-bye.] Ophelia is a person with a will of her own, not a pawn, a tool, a device–even though she will prove to be instrumental–or I hope so. It would be good to meet more unconventional heroines in YA Fantasy, and literature in general.
A Winter’s Promise proves that an author or industry needn’t upend everything. There are plenty of conventions to comfort the less adventurous readers. Truth is, Chabos writes an easily identifiable YA novel.
While the A Winter’s Promise, its protagonist and several key characters are presented differently than the normative, there is enough of the familiar to keep anyone from declaring a character like Ophelia an “antihero.” Antihero suggests she can’t be normal, and I think Ophelia absolutely must by normal, logical, realistic, familiar. And Ophelia is certainly a normal YA protagonist in that she is strong-willed, courageous, clever, and gifted; determined to find autonomy and be authentic.
The novel is conventional in that it cautions us to not be too quick to judge a person or situation. And it asks the reader to entertain new challenges, as it does with Ophelia who only wanted to remain in the comfortable care and pursuit of her Museum. She comes to meet new people—maybe even friends with stories that broaden her understanding of the world and herself. I’m hoping A Winter’s Promise will have a broadening effect with its readership, the genre and industry.
A Winter’s Promise is not a fast-paced novel, but the ending will arrive too quickly when you realize you will have to wait for the next installment—not that you’re not exactly left on a cliff-hanger either. It’s just that Christelle Dabos creates such compelling worlds and characters–and intrigue.
A Winter’s Promise is the tempered unraveling of a breathtaking blood-thirsty intrigue and at the center, at the greatest risk of it all, is Ophelia’s identity. A perfect Young Adult novel for our times, with a hero better suited to our reality than most contemporary offerings.
Recommended for those interested in translated works and aren’t afraid to look up words. For readers of Fantasy, whether for the world-building or the role-play. For readers of NK Jemisin, Frances Hardinge, Rachel Hartman, V.E. Schwab, and Bardugo’s Six of Crows.
Europa Editions is consistently excellent. If you are looking to read more texts in translation, shop their catalog.