Paizo, $9.99, ISBN 978-1-60125-286-9
Poor Dave Gross – he is credited as a collaborator of sorts when it comes to Winter Witch, but that is only in the inside cover page, and in a smaller font. Sure, Elaine Cunningham has bigger star power when it comes to the tabletop RPG spinoff fantasy novel scene, but still, I’d now forever wonder what Mr Gross did for this book. Did he serve Ms Cunningham coffee when the poor dear spent late nights working on this book? I will never know, heh, although I suspect that the last few chapters of this story were written by him.
In this one, we head over to the colder climates of the Lands of the Linnorm Kings, home of Conan the Barbarian and Xena the Warrior Princess wannabes. The title would suggest that we would spend more time in Irrisen, a land ruled by a bunch of Snow Queen-wannabes, but titles can be deceptive, and this is one such case where the title isn’t entirely accurate.
So, we have Ellasif Maritsdotter, a young warrior from White Rook. She is currently estranged from her tribe because they tried to murder her sister, whom they believe to be a witch, and Ellasif understandably isn’t too happy about that. When the story opens, she sulks around in Korvosa, a magical city a bit like the Hogwarts the School of Useless Wizardry and Putty Patronus, only the ladies are a bit more sexy and the necromancers actually try to kill you for real. Her plan is to get a wizard to help her rescue her sister (who didn’t die but were rescued by the winter witches of Irrisen instead – Liv is, after all, a witch), although I’m not how exactly a wizard is going to help her. But we all need an excuse to get the story rolling.
We also meet Declan Avari, a handsome happy go-lucky fellow who turns his back to magic and dabbles instead in forging maps. He’s the one Ellasif has her eye on, and eventually, events will conspire to send them along with a bunch of gypsy-like folks up north. Ellasif wants to rescue her sister, Declan wants to rescue his teacher and potential girlfriend, and… woo-hoo, here they go. Sigh.
Winter Witch starts out great – the scene where a younger Ellasif has to protect her newly born sister even as the winter wolves attack her village is definitely one to remember because this prologue is absolutely brutal and thrilling to read. The rest of the story, however, is more of a standard tale as our heroes encounter attacks after attacks as if they are indeed living out a tabletop campaign where a dungeon master is randomly rolling some dice to determine what kind of monsters to throw at our heroes. Still, the story makes for some solid entertainment because of the gripping narrative. It also helps that there is so much lush atmosphere and scenery, described with great clarity that sometimes I feel that I could feel the chill of winter on my skin. It is very easy for me to lose myself into the story, no matter how hackneyed I find it to be sometimes, so that’s good as far as I am concerned.
The characters are standard stock characters, not too memorable but with adequate depths to prevent them from being completely flat. Ellasif can hold her own, which is great, although rather disappointingly she is shoe-horned into the position of needing rescue in a manner that makes me roll up my eyes. Unfortunately, Declan is a bit of a wishy-washy guy who doesn’t seem to know what he wants – by the last page he has pretty much forgotten the two people he has set out to rescue and he shows no believable reaction to how events have turned out. It is as if the authors don’t know what to do with this character and just make things up as they go along, as poor Declan’s character is all over the place.
As entertaining as this story can be, however, the denouement is a complete disappointment. Aside from a potentially interesting character biting the dust as quickly as she is introduced, there is also the presence of a very ridiculous stereotype of an evil female villain, complete with ludicrous bouts of vanity, shrieking insane outbursts, and a tendency of melodrama to drive home what a spectacularly hammy and ineffective villain she is being. And then the authors try to force a friendship and potential romance between Ellasif and Declan on me when these two characters display zero chemistry even as friends in this story.
Winter Witch is a very entertaining and solid road trip fantasy tale. There is nothing wrong with that, which is why I’m more than pleased to give it a pretty good score. But still, I wish that it had tried harder to become a little bit more than a mere good read. The potential is there, but the execution occasionally faltered, especially toward the late stages of the story.