On the surface, Benjanun Sidruangkaew’s Winterglass is a neat new twist on the Snow Queen folktale, with prose that borders at times on the poetic. The take on a familiar tale truly is excellent, especially the transposition of a traditionally western European tale to a south Asian environment. For example, the representation of a civilisation used to warmer, more tropical climates adjusting to eternal winter brings a fresh perspective. Sidruangkaew is also sensitive to the atmosphere of the traditional fairytale – eschewing the Victorianised tweeness that Disney has popularised, Winterglass is gritty, grim and at times forbidding, with an ending that is entirely in the spirit of the traditional fairytale. But to see it only as a retelling would do both author and story a disservice. Sidruangkaew brings new elements to bear on the plot that elevate Winterglass beyond retreading old ground. The new take on the magic mirror is intriguing, while the macabre ghost kilns that use human spirits as an analogue for electricity are chilling in their cold pragmatism.
While the plot is slightly uneven at times, the threads are tied together well with the underlying theme of loyalty, especially those which conflict. Both the protagonist Nuawa and the ambiguous Lussadh are fiercely loyal to their chosen paths, and in both cases it is their loyalty to their families which is tested. Nuawa and Lussadh provide mirror images of one another, both devoted, both hardened in their devotion. It is these dynamics which keep the reader invested in the story beyond the well-worked aesthetics.
Also worthy of note is Sidruangkaew’s command of characterisation. The Winter Queen is suitably cold, aloof and incomprehensible as her namesake. The protagonist, Nuawa, is likewise enigmatic; an insurgent who ought to be dead, forging herself into a weapon to defeat someone whom she must agree to serve if she is to get close to her. She is a practical woman, a gladiator who dislikes fighting, who deals in pragmatism and betrayal simply to survive. She is a character who could be unsympathetic, except that we are allowed to see just enough behind the walls she has raised that we do manage to get to know someone whose mission in life is to be unknowable. Similarly, Lussadh could very easily be a two-dimensional villain, in thrall to eldritch powers in the manner of a fairytale. But, despite her own ruthless pragmatism, she likewise becomes a sympathetic character, with her own motivations, fears and regrets. Also, as one of three characters in Winterglass who do not conform to traditional western models of sex and gender who are treated with skill and sensitivity, Lussadh is the kind of character I would love to see more of. Winterglass came to be as much about Lussadh as Nuawa, and this I was glad of.
Winterglass is highly recommenders for fans of folklore and literary fantasy alike, with intriguing characters and skillful world-building. That the ending sets up for more to come makes it all the more exciting.
This review was given in exchange for a copy of the e-book courtesy of Apex Publications.