The Winter King by Christine Cohen: A tyrannical god, a desperate girl
Overall rating: 8/10
Quality of writing: 8/10
Concerning content (language, violence, etc.): moderate
Age level: 12 and up
The snowy town of Hrimsby is a harsh place, ruled by a harsh god: the titular Winter King, who constantly demands tithes from the people without ever offering help in return. This leads young Cora Nikolsen, the protagonist, to resent the Winter King for her family’s poverty after her father’s death, and she begins planning how to approach the King herself. Standing in her way, though, is the High Aldorman Fyodor, the King’s emissary and the only one who can meet him face to face under the town’s strict religious system. Despite this, Cora infiltrates the High Aldorman’s house as a servant, setting out on a process of discovering the dark truth about the Winter King, the High Aldorman, and Hrimsby itself.
The world Cohen writes is an austere one, with a freezing-cold, Nordic-inspired setting, several malevolent or conniving characters, looming threats such as poverty, sickness, and starvation, and above all, a deity that seems (initially) to be wholly without mercy. More importantly, however, Cohen does an excellent job of moving beyond this austerity to highlight the moments of genuine courage, sacrifice, and loyalty on the part of Cora and other characters that make this story what it is. This story is anything but sunshine and rainbows—but readers who make it through to the end will earn a satisfying sense that they have truly learned something about both the characters and themselves.
(Spoilers throughout this section.) The plot of The Winter King is solid and well-crafted—the overall arc traces from Cora’s initial resentment against the Winter King for her family’s poverty, to her eventual massive discovery that the figure the town has been worshipping is a fake, and that the real Winter King is entirely different. Along the way are plenty of nicely executed twists and plot-pertinent info reveals (such as Cora’s discovery of a secret door in the High Aldorman’s study, concealing a mysterious book), and the narrative is overall engaging and enjoyable.
That said, partly as a result of this book’s intended age range, some elements of the plot do seem somewhat less subtle and more intentionally dramatic or attention-grabbing. To give a few examples: there are no fewer than two different rejected proposals involved with Cora’s love triangle (see Characters below), suspense and emotion are keyed up slightly higher than I might have expected (especially because the reader is privy to Cora’s internal monologue), and the main conflict ends with an almost-deus-ex-machina twist where a white wolf saves Cora at the last moment by killing the High Aldorman*. None of these are instances of particularly bad writing—they simply seem somewhat more apt for younger audiences, and while older readers (14-18) can still enjoy this book, as I certainly did, they should also be aware that they may find its plot less layered and intricate than books written specifically for older age ranges. (8.5/10)
*The white wolves had already appeared a few times throughout the story, which is why this isn’t properly a deus ex machina. However, we hadn’t yet seen them influence major plot events this directly, making this twist seem perhaps a little too unexpected.
Dialogue and character growth are the primary drivers of this book’s plot, making characterization one of its strongest aspects. Readers get an excellent look at Cora’s motivations and struggles, and we see her grow in ingenuity and bravery over the course of the book. Where Cohen’s writing really shines, though, is the way in which she situates Cora in the middle of several different dynamics—her duty to help support her poverty-stricken mother and siblings, her ongoing resentment towards the Winter King, her co-conspiratorship with Aldor Matthias against the High Aldorman, and a love triangle that forms between her, her longtime friend Peder, and Marten, the cunning illegitimate child (and servant) of the High Aldorman. Stretched between different obligations and desires with these relationships, Cora is forced to make difficult decisions at many points in the story, allowing readers to see her character growth in action.
Cohen also does an excellent job of drawing out tension and conflict between characters in several scenes (although this can edge towards intentionally-dramatic at times; see Plot above), and in addition to Cora’s growth, we get a nice sense of the character progression of Peder (among others) as tense circumstances force them to reveal their concern (or lack thereof) for Cora. Overall, I would say that of all this book’s components, characters are perhaps what Cohen does best of all, earning The Winter King a 9/10 in this category.
The book has relatively little to speak of as far as difficult elements—it’s 351 pages in my edition (so moderate to long, but definitely manageable), and Cohen’s style is direct and mostly narrative -focused, without excessive ornamentation or descriptory passages. The book’s focus on dialogue, coupled with the fact that readers get to hear Cora’s internal monologue, makes it fairly easy to understand what’s going on, and Cora is relatable enough that readers should naturally find themselves figuring out the events of the plot alongside her. Overall, this book is not a particularly difficult read, and merits a 3/10.
Quality of writing
Cohen’s writing is well-crafted, especially for its intended audience, and offers readers a nicely put-together plot. Character work is strong, and the narrative is engaging and readable throughout, although it’s not terribly exceptional in the way of descriptive language, metaphor, or symbolism. Cohen does occasionally fall into the authorial pitfall of telling, rather than showing, characters’ emotions, but this is a relatively minor flaw on the whole. Overall, the quality of writing in The Winter King is solid but not exceptional, earning an 8/10 rating.
This book does have a fair amount of content that readers (and particularly parents of readers) should be aware of—there’s nothing incredibly graphic or gratuitous, but at the same time, Cohen doesn’t shy away from many of the messy parts of Cora’s difficult life in Hrimsby. In terms of sexual content, the only actions depicted are a couple of quick kisses (between Cora and Peder, as well as between her and Marten). However, we also see two different marriage proposals, from Peder and Marten, respectively (which, although they’re certainly not particularly concerning, are still fairly emotional), a discussion of Marten being the “bastard son” of the High Aldorman, and a scene where Nils, the High Aldorman’s steward, is implied to have a (rather creepy) interest in Cora’s mother, who is a servant under him. There are also a decent number of scenes where violence or deaths occur—one character is implied to have been tortured by Marten on the High Aldorman’s behalf, although we don’t see it directly happening. Several characters also die of the "coughing sickness” plaguing the town (the details of this are described with moderate specificity, not glossed over), and Cora is mistreated on a couple occasions—once being whipped by Nils as punishment, the other being handled roughly (in a pretty brief scene) by Marten, establishing his status as an antagonist. Finally, we also see a few scenes that could be considered “scary,” mostly involving Cora being chased by the “draugar” (monsters that lurk around the edges of the town), but these shouldn’t pose too much of a problem for readers in the book’s intended age range.
Canon Press, the publisher of this book, describes it as middle grade fiction, and for this reason I’ve gone with a 12+ rating overall—its level of difficulty, characterization, and plot structure are all in keeping with this age range. However, taken by themselves, certain aspects of the book (see Concerning content above) might suggest a slightly older age range. Parents may want to consider discussing some of these aspects with their children as they read the book, especially if the children fall towards the younger end of the spectrum—and as always, my recommended age range will not be suitable for all young readers and should be adjusted up (or down) using parents’ and readers’ best judgement.