Pulling from such fantasy influences as J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin, Scottish author Brian Ruckley has synthesized a worthy epic opener that goes far beyond a mere recycling of popular genre archetypes.
At the dawn of the Second Age the Gods created five races, and in them they imbued their hopes of a life unmarred by war or conflict. Their trust was broken, however, when the elf-like Kyrinin and human Huanin banded together to destroy a third race. As a result the Gods abandoned their creations to the Third Age, an age marked by bloodshed between the True Bloods and their exiled Northern neighbors, the followers of The Black Road.
But the Gyre Bloods of The Black Road have been deceptively quiet the past few decades and now Gryvan oc Haig, the High Thane of the True Bloods, is more concerned with annexing the wealthy lands to the south rather than bolstering his northern defenses. The coming of winter is usually a joyous occasion, yet this year’s Winterbirth will be decorated with the gore of battle as old hatreds spark anew.
Brian Ruckley’s Winterbirth is the kind of novel that, even though written as the first part of a trilogy, would stand solidly on its own two feet. With unpretentious charm Ruckley cultivates a universe as exciting as it is intelligent, fleshing out a tale layered with juicy subplots and surprising twists.
Medieval Scottish motifs and a subdued magic system lend the Winterbirth world a gritty and realistic texture; a world painted in shades of gray that’s no less violent or polarized for its lack of clearly defined absolutes. This is hands down one of the author’s greatest strengths: being able to convey a realistic sense of morality without painting characters as expressly good or expressly bad. The Godless World Trilogy doesn’t belittle its readers with transparent opinion or the tired concepts of right and wrong. Characters respond to actions based upon a complex series of cultural and historical interactions, i.e., Ruckley’s world has real history.
While Ruckley’s level of characterization may not match that of Martin’s, the author’s ability to balance meticulously calculated plot with heart-pounding action is second to none. Winterbirth steadily gains momentum as it unloads backstory, building to a climactic ending that’s satisfying yet still open-ended.