Winter’s Reach is Craig Schaefer’s entry for this year’s Self Published Fantasy Blog Off and is Fantasy Book Review’s first semi-finalist. Although he is mostly known for the Daniel Faust series, this is Schaefer’s foray into writing complex dark fantasy.
It starts by following a young nobleman called Felix who has a plan to go to Winter’s Reach to make a deal to save his family’s dwindling reputation. The problem is that Winter’s Reach is controlled by barbaric criminals under the guiding hand of the notorious Mayor, Veruca Barrett. Making this deal might not be so straightforward. Against his father’s advice, he goes through with the trip but, perhaps he has another motive for venturing to the infamous, blisteringly chaotic city.
Elsewhere, an ageing but thoroughly loved Pope is close to death. His son is a gambler, drunk and maybe unfit to succeed. This leads to political unrest, doubt, plots, divided factions, and evidently a great number of betrayals within the Church. Throughout this side of events the Italian-esque names of the Cardinals and the Council can be slightly confusing so I took a few notes and was fine.
This books greatest asset is it’s brilliantly created characters. We are presented with such a wide, complex bunch and I didn’t think there was one weak point of view perspective. The main people we follow are Felix, a pair of bounty hunters, a Cardinal, a villainous banker, and the Pope’s daughter who is flirting with certain ancient arts which she really should not be doing. I analysed two types of characters in Winter’s Reach. Firstly, those who change dramatically throughout the book due to the horrors of the world. Secondly, those individuals who are aware this world is a vile and corrupt place. The latter people don’t change too much throughout yet we receive snippets from their past creating a truly three-dimensional world. The mixture of these types makes for great drama. My favourite characters were Felix, Armadeo and Mari. Notable mentions go to the assassin, Simon and to Veruca. She reminded me of a Batman villain, however, definitely not the kind from the comedy series.
From the beginning, it truly shines how well written this book is. It seems edited brilliantly and the narrative has an addictive pace that kept me engrossed, essentially being the reason why I finished this in 24-hours. The world building and descriptions aren’t over the top or too detailed but for a character and plot focused book that isn’t an issue. The descriptions of the environments and the cast are still deep though just not 10-pages worth when 1 would do, unlike some modern fantasy. Every character and event I had a perfectly painted picture of in my mind. The prose is fluid and poetic and surprisingly in fiction these days, I didn’t notice a single spelling or grammatical error.
The book starts off quite hopeful with a few likeable characters in the first couple of chapters. Things don’t stay that way for long. Although not Grimdark, this is still quite macabre. Mutilation, brutal murders, double-crossing, ginormous sea beasts and all the other good stuff those people who ride on the darker side of fantasy enjoy. The mask-wearing dark religious cult is extremely interesting, haunting and sometimes brutal. Towards the end of the story, I had no idea who was helping who and who was trustworthy and it was great. This book is the first of 4 completed stories in the Revanche Cycle saga. The finale here is pretty great but don’t expect closure. It sets the sides and leads to a few gems of what may happen in The Instruments of Control. To conclude, a stunning dark fantasy narrative with all the double-crossing, deceit, blackmail and political chaos you could hope for. A great find in my #SPFBO group. It will take something truly stunning to beat this. Note- I’m pretty sure all 4 of these books cost a combined total of £8.00 on Amazon.
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