A Winter’s Promise, book one in The Mirror Visitor quartet, explores a world ruptured into floating islands called arks. Readers follow Ophelia in her engagement to superintendent Thorn, who resides on the distant and perilous ark of the Pole. It is there she must acclimate to married life, all the while threatened by hostile in-laws and political enemies. This retro-futuristic romp has the same quirky charm as Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle, chock-full of eccentric characters and unique landscapes that make it impossible to put down.
For avid readers of YA Fantasy, the novel’s meandering pace might seem a little self-indulgent. But for how thoroughly Belgium-based author Christelle Dabos has developed her fictional world, one can hardly blame her. Ophelia’s home ark, Anima, quite literally comes alive. Objects have souls. Ophelia’s scarf, a loyal and excitable creature, becomes just as integral and three-dimensional a character as Ophelia herself. Readers will delight in exploring every nook and cranny of this strange, steampunk universe.
Dabos builds A Winter’s Promise upon standard tropes of the genre (elaborate magic systems, powerful young heroines, elusive love interests, etc.), but salts them with a humor reminiscent of middle-grade adventure novels. Her handling of romance is similarly nostalgic, stripping relationships of the stifling intensity that seems to have saturated YA Fiction since the publication of Twilight. Notably absent are the sickly-sweet love confessions that tend to come across as more performative than passionate. Whatever tender moments Dabos does offer are all the more impactful for their rarity.
Ophelia, comically disheveled and quietly intelligent, offers a refreshing take on the strong female protagonist of the genre. One can only read so many stories about sword-wielding assassins, whose obnoxious displays of strength feel a little patronizing. However, Ophelia’s clumsiness becomes increasingly caricaturesque over the course of the novel. The villainization of other more overtly feminine characters makes this especially jarring. Thankfully, the divide between conventional and unconventional women gradually dwindles, making way for burgeoning friendships that transcend misogynistic boundaries.
A Winter’s Promise is perfect for fans of Jones’s Howl series, Pratchett’s Discworld novels, or YA readers looking for a change from the breakneck femme fatale narratives currently dominating the genre. The novel has made waves across Europe. Notably, it won the 2013 Gallimard Jeunesse-RTL-Télérama First Novel Competition and the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire. The Storm of Echoes, the final book in the series, comes out this fall.
Words by Phoebe Kalid
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