One of the top new young adult novels coming out this year, “A Winter’s Promise,” is the first book of a new series written by the renowned French author, Christine Dabos. Although the characters tend to be dull and uninteresting, the book still presents a fascinating magical setting filled with a complex plot full of political mystery.
“A Winter’s Promise” takes place in a world that has been fragmented into areas called “arcs,” each with their own mystical elements. Dabos’ creative strength quickly presents itself as she describes Anima, the native homeland of the heroine Ophelia, in which “objects come to life” and “old buildings tend...to become appallingly bad-tempered.” Furthermore, many individuals in anima are gifted with supernatural abilities, such as Ophelia’s ability to travel through mirrors and “read” the history of tangible objects by simply “touching...without protective gloves,” while others are able to mend broken objects by touch as well. In this world, the people of every arc regard each other as part of the same family guided by an immortal, revered ancestor, and regularly posit early arranged marriages for the strengthening of alliances or family trees.
The setting of the book becomes even more complex as we learn that Ophelia, a young girl cursed with a clumsy tendency, is to be forced into an arranged marriage with an elusive, unknown man, Thorn, from the infamous arc of Pole known for its extreme weather and brash individuals. As the marriage approaches in the plot, Thorn’s inconsiderate, ill-behaved character appears as he both insults and downright ignores Ophelia and her family in their presence. Despite both Ophelia and her family taking offense to this behavior, the marriage goes on as the Doyenne, one of the most powerful leaders of Anima, threatens to exile Ophelia from the arc if the marriage fails.
Although the worldbuilding in the book is incredibly complex, it severely outshines the characters in the story. Ophelia’s presentation as an unsophisticated, plain girl whose lack of femininity is juxtaposed with the superficial description of the other girls in the story is uninteresting. While it is a break from the usual all-popular Queen Bees stereotype proliferated in so many teen fiction novels, in “A Winter’s Promise,” Ophelia’s characterization is in no way unique. Ophelia revels in the belief that because she is not like other girls, she is characteristically superior. This idea is proliferated in media time and time again, and Dabos' descriptions of Ophelia interacting with other girls serve to highlight the contrast between Ophelia’s disinterest in her physical appearance and the excessive amount of attention placed by other characters into theirs. The dialogue in these instances sound forced, with statements such as “Holy curler! Don’t tell me you’re still wearing this old pair of horrors!” The writing seems to ridicule the girls who place a lot of care in their appearance for the purpose of exalting Ophelia for her indifference.
The complete absence of any diversity detracts from the story, making the characters less relatable and thus less engaging. The book takes place in a fragmented world where “men and women...rallied to the family spirit to create a new society.” However, for a place created from the people of our world, there seems to be no represented identity other than that of white heterosexuality. This is especially troubling: Have people of color never existed in this fantasy, or did they just uniformly not survive the Rupture, the end of the past world? The cultural homogeneity may be a hard barrier to get past for readers who expect realistic depictions of identity.
“A Winter’s Promise” is worth the read for avid enthusiasts of fantasy series. While characters may be uninteresting and the dialogue comes off as cliché at times, it does present a nuanced plot that can please readers regardless of age. As a first installment of an upcoming series, it presents a solid introduction into a world in which the character development will, hopefully, subsequently shine as equitably as the setting.