Matthew Sturges’ run on Blue Beetle, right up to the title’s unfortunate cancelation, were some of the most entertaining and heartwarming examples of teeanage superheroics that I have ever read. So, when I learned Sturges would be publishing his debut novel via the fine folks at Pyr I was already onboard. And man, am I glad I was! If one were to invision a fairy tale as a high octane action movie you might get something close to Sturges debut novel, Midwinter.
Mauritane, a prisoner of prison-castle Crere Sulace is given one last chance to redeem himself when he is given a special mission by the queen, Titania, herself. Picking out a crack team of other inmates including the politcal prisoner Lord Silverdun, the Avalonian warrior Raieve, and the human Brian Satterly; Mauritane and his desperate band set out on a high-risk quest the detail of which are unknown even to them. Elsewhere the Unseelie Queen Mab prepares her forces for an assault against Titania and the Seelie fey. Mystery, adventure, and a clever tweeking of familiar fairy tale myths make for a fun ride with relatively few stumbling blocks along the way.
Perhaps the best place to start here, and especially with a story like this, is with the characters. The high-risk nature of Mauritane and company’s mission mean in order to be truly invested in the story we need to be invested in the characters. Sturges hits a couple of road bumps here, coming up with some interesting characters that are all fun to read but aren’t always quite so easy to get a handle on. The mission’s leader Mauritane is a man (er…elf) driven by honor and obligation to a crown that believes him a traitor and to a wife that blames him for his social isolation. It makes for a fascinating character who is frequently opaque and difficult to get close to. This is a slight problem since it makes it difficult as a reader to get close to him but, I give Sturges credit for mirroring that same effect with the other characters in the novel in particular with Mauritane’s love interest Raieve.
Raeive, on the one hand is the character I found the most troubling. On the one hand she is the tough warrior woman who doesn’t take crap from anyone but there are moments in the story where she reveals a level of emotional uncertainty that is at odds with her confidence in other areas. I understand the effect that Sturges was going for: a physically capable woman who uses her somewhat imposing nature as an armor against emotional threats but the juxtoposition of the strong warrior-woman with the moonstruck, doe-eyed girl she frequently becomes around Mauritane was a bit too jarring for me to be entirely comfortable. I would have liked to see the warrior angle carried through more completely with Raeive taking a more aggressive stance in her pursuit of Mauritane.
Silverdun was perhaps my favorite character. The sarcastic and rakish exiled lord provided some acerbic wit for comic relief while at the same time managing to frequently reveal hidden depths both to his own charactera and about the world at large. He becomes an increasingly interesting character over the course of the story and, rather than constantly remain a two-dimensional foil for the difficult to read Mauritane turns out to be a well-rounded and constantly surprising character. Satterly, the human trapped in faerie, was hit or miss and doesn’t really come into his own until late in the story and whose knowledge, as a physicist was much underutilized over the course of the novel. Until the end of the novel Satterly spends most of the novel be ostricized for being human and his biggest contribute happens more or less off-screen and is relayed primarily via an info-dump once it has already transpired.
While the characters are all intereting and complex the pace of the novel often means that we spends so little time with each that we never really become overally invested in any one character. There is definatley potential there, especially given the rather meaty backstory that each character has, but it just never really pays off. Sturges also has the somewhat annoying tendancy to jump ahead in time or two a different perspective with no visual cues (admitedly this could be an editorial or printing decision) with no line break delinating the change in time or perspective. It is slightly jarring and made for some significant mental stutter-steps as my brain caught up with the narrative.
Complaints asside Midwinter is still a fantastic read. The narrative is quick and packed with action from your more straightforward prison yard fight to battles aboard flying cities Midwinter keeps things diverse and always fresh. Sturges background in comics is (at least for me) reflected in the strong visual presentation of his writing, in particular the scenes involving Mab’s flying cities created some strong mental imagery that was absolutely dripping in awesome. I also had to wonder if Sturges was a fan of the Brothers Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic (or the film adaptation Stalker, or the game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.) since the Contested Lands with their shifting areas were so similar to the mysterious Zone from the aforementioned sources, even Silverdun’s movement through the Contested Lands was almost exactly how the Stalkers operate in both Roadside Picnic and Stalker (bits of metal, tied to strings to test for safe areas). Sturges also set forth some interesting ground work for future stories by tying together sections of the novel with background information about his version of faerie and hinting at the major religious conflict that exists in his world. Hoepefully, in future volumes Sturges will slow the pace down a bit so we can get a better glimpse at the wondrous and exciting world he has built.