Arrow has lost his heart–figuratively first, then literally. Without the organ beating in his chest, the prince loses his ability to connect emotionally with anyone, from suitors who seek to court him to his own royal family. Worse still, however, is that the man is very slowly and very literally turning to ice. In the three years since losing his heart, the growing cold within Arrow has begun sapping him of strength. No longer can he live up to his duties as a member of the Immortal Guard that serves his sister, nor can he tolerate closeness with any source of warmth, not even the warmth of human contact.
Razin, the sorcerer who serves the royal family, has had enough. Like the royal family, Razin is desperate to see Arrow restored to his hale and hearty self. Time, he fears, is running out and Razin decides it is time to embark on a journey to search for the very pari, a powerful magical being, who ended up in possession of Arrow’s heart. Razin knows that leaving the palace for the wilds of the black mountains will be arduous, but failure is not an option. Success, on the other hand…both men know that brings no guarantee of happiness, either.
In the interest of full disclosure, my previous experience with R. Cooper’s work has left me underwhelmed. I gave up on two other works by this author. That said, I found this book rather delightful, all things considered.
As someone who makes a living working in two languages, I got a kick out of the foreign language bits, even if it was mostly just names. For example, our main character’s name is “Kaman,” which the narrator tells us means “arrow” and the MC’s moral rectitude is a pretty driving force in the book. When he loses his heart, everyone (save Razin) takes to calling him “ki?in” which means “winter.” It’s not a big detail, but I think it helps the reader conjure up a better metal picture. On a deeper level, you can ponder whether or not the author intended any allusion to the power of language and cultural/personal identity. Does the Winter Prince succumb to his plight all the more so because everyone including himself has started to refer to him as Ki?in instead of Kaman? My only “errrr” moment with the name game is this: I can’t figure out why Razin’s dialogue at least would have him referring to Ki?in/Kamen as “Arrow” since that’s the English translation and apparently, Razin and Kamen are NOT English speakers. If the narrator wants to refer to him in translation, I don’t think that’s an issue, but I can’t understand why the Kamen/Arrow dichotomy exists after the narrator explains they’re translations. The other confusing moment was the name Razin. Ultimately, I decided that it was probably pronounced more like “Rah-ZEEN” rather than “raisin,” but there was nothing to clarify (ditto on the hook diacritic on ki?in). Nevertheless, foreign language employed sparingly as it is in this book is a win to me.
Another awesome part of this was how the book was fantasy, but not set in the standard Western image of “fantasy.” Though sparingly used, there are sufficient non-Western references that help further assist the reader in building their own mental picture without getting bogged down with details/world building. More on the world building in a bit. First, the author has picked something in the Turkic family of languages for names/nouns, which help flavor the mental pictures. There is an appearance by a flying carpet and the physical description of the characters (which we’re not bogged down with long purple passages about someone’s jewel-toned eyes, thank fuck) clearly informs us that our characters are not caucasian and our setting is probably Ottoman Empire-esque. These hints about the setting, though sparing, don’t necessarily detract from the story since it’s very much a character-driven work. Still, I would have loved to see more world building to further solidify the image of the book. Either a few mentions of mannerisms used at court or a few more words that might give insight into the social structure in this fictional world.
At the core of The Winter Prince is the shifting relationship between Arrow and Razin. As son of the reigning Queen in a matriarchal society, Arrow is duty-bound to fulfill his destiny. Here, “destiny” means he is to marry whomever best fulfills the needs of his people and supports the royal family. Arrow is also shown to be a man who places much stock in his own honor. For example, when he inevitably marries, he says he would be unable to dishonor his spouse by taking a lover–even if his marriage is a political union and not a love union. That said, Arrow has reached the point where marrying will only be at the behest of his family because he feels his inability to feel or express real emotion would not be something he would seek to impose upon another.
At times, however, it does feel like the author isn’t one hundred percent committed to an emotionless husk. It’s difficult for the reader to know, precisely, if this is by chance or design. Personally, I think it’s more a matter of convenience since the author draws particular attention to those instances when the man with no heart shows obvious signs of, well, sort of having a heart.
The events that lead up to Arrow losing his heart all happen off-page. Despite their importance to the story, I think it works perfectly fine to have that part of the tale left mostly to the reader’s imagination–the key word being “mostly.” Over the course of the book, we do get snippets of information that detail what lead to Arrow losing his heart, and that event is pretty much a downright cliche. But it’s such a angsty cliche, what’s not to love? I thought the author meted out the details at a good pace, prepping us little by little for how it all gets resolved. What breathes life into that cliche is Arrow’s penchant for honor and how it demands one course of action but the man himself desires another.
As far as characterizations go, I wouldn’t say they are deeply detailed portraits being painted here, but each MC is distinct in voice and tone. Arrow speaks with reserve and behaves with the demeanor becoming of a prince. Razin, on the other hand, is more fiery while still being the guiding hand a royal sorcerer is meant to be. The supporting cast varies widely and one of the supporting characters who, by rights, ends up more or less another main character, is fleshed out as well as Arrow and Razin. Even the less detailed characters work well for the brief settings in which they appear. Through it all, though, Arrow and Razin are at the center of it all. Their exchanges show a delightful yet consistent range of emotion that includes everything from bittersweet to exasperating (mostly due to Razin’s “guiding hand” since Arrow’s more or less emotionally inert). I definitely got the impression Arrow is true to his name: he flies straight, unwilling to let circumstance keep him from doing what’s right. Clearly, that means a man like Arrow finds himself sacrificing a lot for those to whom he is closest, but that’s what makes him a great melodramatic lead. As for Razin, he is certainly portrayed as the more volatile of the two and it shines clearly through his speech–when he’s pleased or displeased with his prince, he refers to him as a sharp or dull arrow accordingly. He comes across as the kind of man who points out things you don’t want to hear but you need to anyway.
My only real gripe with the story is how the main conflict between Arrow and Razin ultimately gets resolved. To me, it didn’t feel like “CATHARSIS!” so much as “ALL THE LOOSE ENDS GOT TIED UP!” There is a lot to be said for tying up loose ends, don’t get me wrong. I just wish that, after all the build up between our characters, things had panned out more…well, “vanilla” I suppose is one way to describe it. Personal preferences for fictional characters notwithstanding, the non-traditional ending still lets everyone get pretty much what they want, so it’s mostly a win.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.