Publishers Weekly Review
Scottish author Ruckley’s outstanding fantasy debut, the first installment of the Godless World trilogy, introduces a sprawling realm abandoned by the gods after two races united to destroy a third. The peoples left behind struggle with centuries-old prejudices and unresolved conflicts that threaten to destroy them all. The start of winter is traditionally a time of celebration, but when the elflike Kyrinin and religious fanatics called Inkallim interrupt the festivities at Castle Kolglas with a masterfully planned attack, the bloodshed is just the first move in an apocalyptic war that won’t end until the world itself is unmade. As Ruckley chronicles the plight of numerous characters through an increasingly chaotic landscape, he develops unsubtle allegories to recent world history and some of humankind’s more obvious shortcomings like bigotry, greed and apathy. The author’s unapologetically stark yet darkly poetic narrative displays a refreshing lack of stereotypical genre conventions, ensuring a fervent audience of epic fantasy fans looking for something innovative in a genre that can be anything but.
I am ashamed to admit that I wasn’t expecting much when I picked up Ruckley’s book Winterbirth, which is his fantasy debut work. I read reviews online on websites like Amazon and Goodreads. By the time I actually got around to reading this book I was expecting a fairly standard three-star read from an author who is trying very hard to write something epic, genre bending and prolific.
I wasn’t expecting to fall in love with the story, the world and the characters. Nor was I expecting to spend several nights awake until three in the morning turning page after page, being completely absorbed by Ruckley’s prose. It was a welcome surprise. I was in the mood to read something dark and epic, something that really sucked me in and that’s exactly what I got from Winterbirth.
While there were some pits in the semi-slow start, Ruckley has developed a complex, unapologetically stark world and has refused to shy away from using human pitfalls like greed and prejudice as major plot points. Some readers may find this overly dark and dramatic, I welcomed the change this offered me from some other authors I’ve read recently.
Ruckley’s world is complex, broken into a southern and northern (more religious) kingdom and a non-human forest dwelling peoples thrown into the mix for spice, depth and diversity. Each group has incredibly obvious prejudices and unique beliefs and complex histories which Ruckley uses to spin and thicken his yarn. While Ruckley’s world is one of stark contrasts, his characters seem to inhabit more of a gray zone, which is one reason why I absolutely loved this book.
Admittedly, I enjoy books which focus more on shades of gray rather than stark blacks and whites. Ruckley does a wonderful job at presenting the points of view, beliefs, histories and traditions from all sides of the conflict in a way that allows the reader to connect and sympathize in some fashion, with everyone. I still, after thinking about this book for a few hours, have no idea whose side I am on; who is good or bad, or even if there is a good and bad. This, (in my opinion) is brain candy. Many authors try to do this, but few actually succeed as Ruckley has.
This book is a book of development. Ruckley is obviously setting the stage for something grand in the next books. He is introducing the reader to the conflict, beliefs and painting his world in vibrant colors. When many books focused on development are slow going and sometimes agonizingly hard to read, Ruckley peppers his book with plenty of action and fills the pages with a relentlessly paced plot. His plot may be confusing for the first chunk of the book, but the puzzle pieces do click together, leaving the reader with an “ah ha” moment which just seems to enliven the book even more.
Winterbirth is the start to an epic fantasy trilogy and while most of the reviews online point to the fact that readers will either love it or hate it, I suggest fans of complex, dark epic fantasies give this a try. Ruckley is uncompromising and unforgiving. He has no qualms against exposing the dark underbelly of each character, yet artfully keeps them relatable. While this may bother some readers, I actually found it thought provoking as I felt many of his scenes and descriptions seemed to mirror humanity as a whole. While readers may find many characters black and white at the start of the book, they will quickly realize that Ruckley has imbued them all with a sense of subtle ambiguity which will force the reader to take a step back at points and seriously think about what is happening.
Ruckley’s prose was fantastic. Some of his descriptions, quite honestly, were so unique and artistic I was left gaping. While many authors pepper their writing with traditional phrases we’ve all read and heard a hundred times before, there was none of that in Ruckley’s book. It was almost as if the author made it a specific point to use nearly no phrasing he had read in any other book. I found this refreshing and captivating.
Ruckley’s scope is huge, his world is dark and unforgiving, his characters and morality are gray and his writing is poetic. If, at times, the plot did seem to snag or hiccup a bit, it was easy to forgive. My only true regret is that one character, toward the end of the book, seemed to step out of the gray zone I so love and become more polarized. Regardless, I am eagerly going to devour the next book in this series: Bloodheir.
Readers who don’t enjoy epic fantasy or dark plots be warned, Winterbirth is heartily full of both. Fans of heavy magic use should also be aware that magic is more of a subtle hint in this book. While it may take a greater role in future books in the series, you won’t find a ton of it here.