Auryn is tired and he no longer knows why he serves. As a general in the emperor’s forces, Auryn enforces a totalitarian regime in which all thought is punished, obedience is tolerated, and the madman he serves dines on the flesh of his subjects. Auryn works on The Farm, one of the facilities where dissidents, and the sons of dissidents, are sent. When he realizes one of the boys branded, cut, beaten, and tortured is the son of the only man Auryn has ever loved, he knows he has to do something.
Keita doesn’t know where his father is. He doesn’t know any of the answers to the questions being asked of him. Keita’s memory of his father is vague, the memories of a child abandoned by a parent he loved. His mother died, his father fled, and Keita was left behind to be punished. Seeing reports of the many crimes his father is accused of committing on television is the only way he knows his father is still alive. Auryn is his bulwark against the cruelty of the world, the nightmares that haunt him when he sleeps and surround him while he’s awake; Keita, too, works at the Farm, and when Auryn tells him it’s going to be okay, he can almost believe it. When he’s swept up into Auryn’s arms, he doesn’t even know if he can believe in the kindness offered to him. But clothed in the identity of Auryn’s dead son and sheltered by his love, Keita has a chance at life. If one can call this living.
Auryn fell in love with the man he was supposed to spy on, the brilliant Reisen Kaneko. Auryn was supposed to gain enough information on the brilliant scientist so that there would be no doubt of the need to cull him; instead, he found something in Reisen’s eyes that made him feel human. Now, years later, he is given the chance to save Reisen’s son, Keita, and Auryn doesn’t hesitate. His own son and wife are dead, leaving Auryn to live with their unhappy ghosts, and Keita is light and warmth and a chance at happiness and redemption. He expected to feel fatherly towards the boy; he expected to feel compassion and fondness. He didn’t expect to feel … something else. He wants to do more than comfort Keita when he holds him at night.
Reisen is a man torn between the past and the present, a man whose ramblings and outbursts make no sense to anyone. He talks of an Earth long destroyed, of songs and movies and games no one remembers. He’s brilliant, gifted, and emotionally unstable. He’s also madly in love with Auryn in a world where two men together would be death for both of them, no matter their rank or scientific prowess. What was between them was in the past, and even Reisen knows that he and Auryn are in love with ghosts, in more ways than one.
These three men and their world — a world of despots, tyrants, fascist governments and madness — are only one part of the story. The other takes place across the ocean where a paladin named Tiernan is captured and turned into a living host for a biological weapon that will take the lives of thousands. Helpless to save them, Tiernan can only cling to the one life close enough to reach. The girl, Mae, is young and innocent, something Tiernan isn’t and will never be. When he’s finally able to rescue them both, he brings her home where her sickness only gets worse. Desperate to keep her alive, Tiernan takes her to the nearest hospital and, while there, he meets the medical mage Ari who pulls at his heart in a way he hasn’t felt for years.
Ari is a medical mage studying a new parasite — new to him, at least — that causes black worms to appear in the blood of paladins, a black parasite that drives up anger and dark emotions. But when he sees Tiernan, something in him reaches out for the pain he sees in the other man. It’s almost as if whatever is between them is fate, because there are times he sees Tiernan through eyes not his own, for all that the feelings of lust and love are the same.
This review is going to be very unhelpful. A Broken Winter began as a webcomic back in 2009, though I didn’t find it, myself, until around 2015. It didn’t take me long to binge what there was of the comic and I kept up with it for many months until a computer crash took out all my bookmarks. When I realized this book was the same comic, I knew I wanted to read it. While the art in the comic and the writing hinted at complex world building, a comic can only give you so much. The book gives so much more.
The plot in this book is sprawling and, at times, confusing. Time jumps forward and back, from person to person. There is reincarnation of a sort, where people begin to get their memories back — memories that hint of alien plots, nefarious diseases, and interconnected lives and loves. Tiernan and Ari have loved one another before, when Ari was another man; Reisen is struggling to live in the moment while the memories of his past lives keep coming back; there are winged warriors who may be either angels or aliens depending on your point of view, and religious mythology that hints at connections to real world institutions and beliefs, so those sensitive to criticisms of faith and belief might want to approach this book with caution.
It’s wonderfully confusing, scattered, and fragmented and I think it’s one of those books that will be best served when you’re able to read the whole series together, because as it stands, nothing really makes sense. I mean it does, almost, but the longer you look at it and think about it, the more holes you see and the less it holds together. The writing is beautiful. Eloquent. At times as it’s as spare and brutal as a scalpel, while at others it’s as gloriously poetic and purple as anything Zelazny or Byron would write. I loved the writing and if you don’t mind being confused and in the company of listless, indifferent characters all so you can roll around in some honestly stellar writing, then do consider this book. However. The characters.
There’s not a character in this book I cared about. To be honest, each and every one are a solid meh from me. While we are shown their thoughts, it’s only the surface of them. We’re told what they’re up to, what actions they’re taking, and we can bear witness to some of their feelings, but it’s all so distant and, well, uninterested. I felt like I was being shown an empty piece of clothing and told to imagine the person inside. I read about Auryn’s thoughts of suicide, but there was absolutely no emotional weight to them. I can see, intellectually, why he might have a given thought about this situation or that, but I’m never invited to be close enough to him to actually connect. If it hadn’t been for reading the webcomic, I’m not sure I would have understood certain scenes, or understood that when Auryn is talking to his son, he’s talking to a ghost.
There is so much pain in this book, so much pain — self inflicted and otherwise, all couched in beautiful writing and broken men. Again, the writing is amazing, the plot is bonkers, and the characters are there, but it’s all hints and empty spaces. I feel like I’m being asked to have faith that, when all is said and done, I’ll understand more of what’s going on, understand the nuances better, and, I’ll be honest. I’ll keep up with this author because I absolutely love their writing, not because I particularly enjoyed the story.