Have you ever read a book and, by the time you’ve gotten to ‘the end’, still not known if you liked it or not? It’s happened to me a couple of times, and I have to admit, it’s strange. You sit there and just ponder for what can seem like forever, trying to categorize this book in your brain’s version of the Dewey Decimal System. You know it has to fit somewhere, in Loved It, Loathed It, or Couldn’t Care Less, but you can’t figure out where. So you go back and read the book again.
I had this experience with Elizabeth Wein’s The Winter Prince, which I first read about a year ago. Last night I completed my third reading of it, and I think I’ve finally made up my mind about which shelf I should put it on.
I have come to the conclusion that I love it. There, I have put it on its shelf, somewhere near Hawk of May by Gillian Bradshaw and Taliesin by Stephen Lawhead.
Why? Well, I’m glad you asked. None of the characters in The Winter Prince are flawless, and some can be downright repulsive at times (well, Morgause and Agravaine are always repulsive), but they are so very real. Somehow, they grab hold of your emotions and never let go.
The story follows Medraut (Mordred, to the Mallory purists), the illegitimate son of the High King Artos, as he struggles with discovering where his loyalties truly lie: with his traitorous mother Morgause or with Artos and Lleu, Medraut’s half-brother and heir to the throne of Britain. Artos tasks Medraut with mentoring Lleu in matters of kingship; in essence, Medraut must train the boy whom he feels usurped his place in Artos’s heart. The cord holding the two brothers together is the fiercely independent Goewin, Lleu’s twin sister. Loyalty, betrayal, honor, and shame are woven together in a dance of words. The book is written in first person from Medraut’s perspective and, interestingly, addressed to Morgause.
Medraut. It’s hard to know what to think of this character. At times his actions are loathsome. Hating himself for doing it and yet doing it anyway, he mirrors Morgause’s cruelty when he toys with his younger brother’s fears. At the same time, he freely sacrifices an entire season nursing this same sickly brother. He yearns for Artos’s love and acceptance, and resents Lleu’s easy claim on these.
In every sense of the word, The Winter Prince tells the tale of a journey. It is Goewin’s journey from a rash daredevil to a mature young woman with influence. It is Lleu’s journey from needy child to a strong leader. But most of all, it Medraut’s journey from shadow to sunlight. As always, passing through the shadows means defeating demons of every stripe, but the struggle is justified with the eventual breaking dawn.