Review: ‘The Winter Duke’ by Claire Eliza Bartlett

I picked up the tiara and slid it onto my head. Strength. Pride. Rage. This was the legacy of my family, and if I had to use it to win, I would.

Rating:

5/5 paper planes

What’s This Book About?

Genre: YA High Fantasy (court intrigue)
Publication: March/October 2020 (US/UK)
Pages: 400 (hardcover)

Synopsis: Once Ekata’s brother is finally named heir to Kylma Above, there will be nothing to keep her at home with her murderous family. Not her science experiments, not her family’s icy castle atop a frozen lake, not even Kylma Below, the underwater kingdom that provides her family with magic.

But just as escape to the South is within reach, her parents and twelve siblings fall under a strange sleeping sickness, and no one can find a cure.

In the space of one night, Ekata inherits the title of duke, her brother’s captivating warrior bride, and ever-encroaching challengers from without—and within—her ministry. Nothing has prepared Ekata for diplomacy, for war, for love…or for a crown she has never wanted.

If Kylma Above is to survive, Ekata must seize her family’s magic and power. And if Ekata is to survive, she must quickly decide how she will wield them both.

Content warnings: violence; illness; death; unwanted advances; near-drowning experiences

One of my favourite covers and favourite reads of 2020!

This was engrossing from start to finish and I was sorry to turn the last page. (Well, technically click the last page on my Kindle, but same difference.) An excellent court intrigue-centred YA fantasy, filled with dramatic betrayals and subtle double-dealing. I also found it really satisfying how all the players in the game had a wide range of motives that made everything just that much more believable. Alliances are only temporary – the path to each goal may meet, but they will always diverge eventually. I was suspicious of everyone and I’m pleased to report that the source of the curse was completely unexpected!

I really liked the protagonist Ekata. She’s essentially a nerdy sixteen-year-old middle child, who keeps mostly to herself and her books, and the only interest she takes in politics is to avoid being murdered by her cutthroat family. The way Ekata is plunged into the viper’s next of the royal court (akin to being dropped into the freezing waters of the moat and Kylma Below) was utterly convincing.

Urso looked at me. Eirhan looked at me. I tried to look clever.
Ekata is clever, no doubt, but it takes time for her to learn how to turn that cleverness from navigating academic pursuits to navigating two-faced people, the threat of marriage, and a curse that’s slowly drowning her family.
I didn’t want to run away. I wanted to run toward, toward finding a cure for this illness, toward saving myself and others.
Her development was great to follow and kept me rooting for her – it helped that I really enjoyed her narration and sense of humour!
Sigis looked at the pearl of magic as though he wanted to kiss it. Maybe he could marry the magic and leave me alone.

The writing is lovely and really helps to build the icy world of Kylma Above and the dangerous depths of Kylma Below. There wasn’t much focused on other places, but we hear enough about them through foreign delegates and anecdotes that this world doesn’t feel half-baked. I also appreciated the condemnations of sexism, xenophobia and nationalism through Sigis’ character. What an unpleasant man.

2020 has seen a streak of great sapphic stories and this did not disappoint on that front. The romance itself wasn’t the main focus, but it’s still integral to the plotline and I found it to be a very sweet slow-burn. There are several queer folk in powerful roles and none of their stories hinge on their being queer, nor does their identity ever seem to be a point of contention. Ekata’s older brother Lyosha is bisexual or pansexual, one of the court ministers is non-binary, Ekata is a lesbian and I think Inkar is too.

Pick this up if you’re looking for a compelling court intrigue with high stakes, wintry magic (plus sort-of merfolk!) and queer rep.

Thank you to NetGalley and Titan Books for the eARC for an honest review.

Thanks for reading! Does this sound like a book you’d enjoy? If you’ve read it, I’d love to know your thoughts!

5 thoughts on “Review: ‘The Winter Duke’ by Claire Eliza Bartlett

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