Completed 5/31/2014, Reviewed 6/4/2014
“Winterlong” is a complex novel set in Washington DC after two apocalyptic events, and at the edge of a possible third. The story follows twins separated at birth. Wendy is an autistic teen, having spent most of her life in an institution named HEL, where she was neurologically enhanced, turning her into a powerful empathy. She has visions of a green-eyed boy named “Death”. After escaping from HEL just before it’s attacked, she ends up with an acting troupe, disguised as a boy, and hiding from the powerful new governor of the region. Her brother Raphael, an extraordinarily beautiful boy, grew up as a highly prized courtesan. After accidently killing someone and losing the favor of his patron, he hides among the lazars, wild, cannibalistic children who serve the governor. The monomaniacal governor believes the twins fulfill a prophecy which justifies his evil plans. Wendy and Raphael end up on a path of self-discovery that will either culminate in or subvert the third apocalypse.
There are many things to enjoy in this book. The setting of Washington, DC is awesome. The society hasbroken down in a very interesting way. The upper class is the zoologists from the National Zoo and the curators from the Smithsonian. Despite the wars and degradation of the society, these institutions are still active and maintained. What makes it more interesting is that what they now represent is not necessarily science, but a new mythology as well, evolved out of the memories of pre-apocalyptic civilization.
A courtesan culture and trade evolved to service the upper class. Their mythology revolves around the Magdalene. I won’t go into my usual diatribe about the popular but incorrect belief of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. I found it more interesting that the misogynistic, prudish religions of the past gave way to an earthy, sexual goddess myth and society.
The characterization is really great as well. I particularly was enthralled by Dr. Silverthorn, a doctor from HEL who ends up a servant of the governor, idol of the lazars, and protector of Raphael. When Raphael meets him, he is far into his slow death from exposure to a flesh eating virus used in the attack on HEL. Despite his suffering, he provides comfort to and mentors Raphael. His decay is almost like a clock, counting down to the confrontation between the governor, Raphael, and Wendy.
My problem with the book has to do with the where the plot goes. It starts out really well. Hand’s prose is gorgeous. But when Wendy joins the acting troupe, the plot meanders and prose becomes quite convoluted. Hand consciously forces symbolism and mythology into the story. I’ve read quite a few mythic fantasy and science fiction works recently, and even the ones that are too esoteric for me at least feel organic compared to “Winterlong”. Hand is, pardon the pun, heavy-handed. By the time I got to the end, I felt more like I should have had an existential experience, which I didn’t, than be sated by a powerful conclusion.
But after all was said and done, I liked the book, even though I was somewhat mystified and exhausted with the end. I’m even more interested in the sequels, particularly to see if Hand’s story telling matures. This is one of those times when I wish I used half stars in my ratings. I can’t call it a four star book, so I’m giving it three. As difficult as the second half gets, I’d still recommend it.