BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A young man is mentored by an older woman to prepare for his role as a bridge between warring tribes.
PROS: Sustained focus on an intense relationship; believable and diverse characters; solid world building.
CONS: Slow pacing and a seeming exclusion of queer individuals.
BOTTOM LINE: A slow but rewarding read, giving an older woman protagonist as much or more narrative weight than the young man coming of age.
The Winter Boy focuses tightly on the relationship between two people, a mature woman mentor and her difficult teen boy student. The setting, which we can read as either low-magic fantasy or far-future post-apocalyptic sf, is a society where these relationships are critical to maintaining societal peace. These women, the Alleshi, take young male students for a Season, and bring them to maturity. The boys learn lessons about politics, self-defense, diplomacy, and sex, among other things.
I found this novel to be strong on both world building and on character relationships. In terms of the world building, the peoples and villages that make up this hegemony are rather more diverse than those found in a stereotypical fantasy world. The tribes which make up the hegemony have different cultures, mores, legends, and skin colors. There are Allemen (the men who have trained a Season with an Allesha) who specialize in first contact situations, and others who focus more on trade or other facets of statesmanship. The Alleshi are all older women, many of whom who have raised children to adulthood already themselves. Thus they have rather more perspective than the younger characters, and they also represent a sorely underserved population who rarely get to be protagonists in genre fiction.
One element of the world building that must have made this book a hard sell is that the characters have different names depending on their relationships. Thus to her student, the main Allesha character is Tayar, but we are introduced to her as Rishana–her name to the other Alleshi. When she was married to an Alleman, she was Jinet. Similarly her student comes to her with the name Ryl, but she gifts him with the name Dov during their time together. Predictably, this can get confusing while you’re reading, especially with the secondary characters, mostly other Alleshi in the valley. Luckily, the novel rewards the reader’s close attention.
The Alleshi are facing a threat to their Peace unlike those that they’ve faced before. There is a tribe, known as Mwertik, who have become savagely violent, attacking villages and killing wantonly. They make no attempts to communicate, and do not seem to be raiding strategically. Ryl’s father was one of the first to observe this tribe, who seem to serve the same function as the Reavers in the Firefly TV series. The existence of these people who apparently can’t be negotiated with brings to light deep rifts in the community of Alleshi, putting Tayar/Rishana right in the middle of it all. As it turns out, Ryl/Dov may be instrumental in building bridges to these people and potentially bringing them into the Peace, but first he has to grow up.
We get the perspectives of both Ryl/Dov and Rishana/Tayar throughout the story, and also broader historical perspectives from the stories that they read to each other throughout their Season together. At first Ryl is a believably hard-headed, insecure, and annoying teenager. He feels that his father doesn’t approve of him, and never expected to be chosen as an Alleman candidate, and he feels uncomfortable and lashes out at any perceived slight or grievance. At the same time, he also imagines himself to be a big man, stronger and smarter than everyone else around him.
This is Rishana’s first Season as an Allesha, and she is a little uncomfortable at being given such a “problem boy” for her first experience as a mentor. But she grows into the role as much as he does, bringing him along to a greater understanding of his capabilities and place in the world. I really appreciated that Ryl/Dov has to mature before he can be effective. In some coming-of-age fantasy stories, a young man does incredibly stupid things and is rewarded for them by getting fame/power/rulership/the girl/etc. Then, somehow, he grows up and becomes more mature. Here, when Ryl does incredibly stupid things, they’re pretty stupid, and they don’t have good consequences. It’s only when he starts calming down and utilizing his newfound wisdom that he becomes an effective actor in the story.
Ryl/Dov’s coming-of-age journey is believable. We see him grow through each step of his time with his Allesha, and you can easily believe that when a young man has that much intensive mentorship given to him, he can in fact reach maturity relatively quickly. Tayar/Rishana’s journey is also believable, as she grows into her role and learns more about the society to which she has committed herself, for better and worse. The story doesn’t entirely wrap up at the end of the book–we see Dov all the way to his graduation as an Alleman, but the existential threat posed by the Mwertik will wait for a sequel volume (or volumes) to be resolved.
This is a relatively slow-paced book that focuses largely on intimate relationships. I’m a little worried that a queer reader would feel left out by the society depicted here–given the nature of the Alleshi’s relationships with their boys, I can’t see how a young gay man could ever rise to the rank of Alleman in this system. However, it’s possible that will be addressed in a later book, since as Ryl goes out into the wider world our perspective on their society will necessarily broaden. I am more than willing to extend the benefit of the doubt and follow the author through to subsequent volumes.