Review: “Winterglass,” Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Rating: 5 out of 5

Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s Winterglass has one foot in the realm of fairy tale retellings (The Snow Queen), and one foot in fantasy. Sirapirat came under the rule of the Winter Queen 50 years ago, much like other surrounding lands. Now it rests in eternal winter, and people are killed in the kilns to harvest souls to operate technologies such as heating houses, warming water, cooking food, and providing light. When Nuawa was 6, she was among those to be executed in the kilns. One of her mothers did something to her that enabled her to survive the kiln, even though her other mother died. Her living mother took her in pretending to be her aunt, and honed Nuawa into a weapon. Now the adult Nuawa is a duelist and gladiator in the arena, and occasionally a bounty hunter when she’d like a little more money. There’s to be a tournament soon, and the winner will become an officer in the queen’s army underneath General Lussadh al-Kattan. Everybody except the winner will die in the kilns. Nuawa makes sure she enters the competition, and she quickly catches Lussadh’s eye. Meanwhile, the Winter Queen and Lussadh are searching for those people who have a shard of the queen’s broken mirror inside of them–and Lussadh’s certain Nuawa is a bearer.

While there is a bit of action in here (there is, after all, a tournament to be had), it’s mostly elided in favor of a fascinating political plot and very excellent character interactions. It’s poetic, it’s entrancing, and although I often prefer more action-oriented fiction, I found this to be perfect as-is. The pacing is lovely. Tension underlies so many interactions, because once Nuawa catches the attention of Lussadh, and through her, the queen, any wrong move could get her killed.

Interested in queer material? The author has you covered. There’s plenty of representation here, whether the characters are bisexual, trans, non-binary, etc. It’s just a very natural and elegant part of the story. (Also, I think I can go ahead and tell you that you will NOT find the “bury your gays” trope in here, without giving anything away.)

Lussadh’s background is particularly fascinating. She was a prince of Kemiraj, and she collaborated with the queen to destroy the rest of her dynasty when the queen set her eyes on Kemiraj. Lussadh became both a general in the queen’s armies, and the queen’s lover. She’s also one of those who bear a fragment of the queen’s mirror inside of them. There are those who have not forgiven Lussadh for her betrayal, and one of them has plans to use Nuawa to attain eir goals.

The fantasy aspect of things is likewise engaging. Guns are a thing, but so are blades. There’s a bizarre aspect of the shadows of people and things sometimes being able to do or take damage, which is nicely slotted into the worldbuilding without any fanfare–it just is. There are curses that can be cast, and well, there’s the huge, obvious fact that the Winter Queen has locked multiple countries into eternal winter just through her presence alone.

This is such a lovely book, and I look forward to reading the sequel!

Content Note for sex and some quasi-animal harm (gladiator combat versus some very altered big cats).

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