This month, in a first for Fantasy Reads, I’m recommending a work by a French Fantasy writer. A Winter’s Promise by Christelle Dabos is the first book in her series called The Mirror Visitor (2018). It has been elegantly translated into English by Hildegarde Serle and has a captivating cover illustration by Laurent Gapaillard. Books Two and Three, The Missing of Clairdelune and The Memory of Babel, have already been published and a fourth, The Storm of Echoes, is due this September. All of the books are or will be available as ebooks or in paperback. The series is allegedly suitable for readers of 10 upwards. Well, they’d have to be very sophisticated ten-year olds but I’m prepared to believe that there are more of these in France than elsewhere.
One of the most striking aspects of this series is its setting. During a mysterious event known as The Rupture, the old world was fractured into many parts suspended in a void. Human populations survive on some of the fragments, which are called Arks. Each Ark is governed by an ancient Family Spirit whose descendants have special powers. A Winter’s Promise opens on Anima, an Ark whose inhabitants have the power to affect objects in various ways. The heroine of the story is a shy and clumsy young woman called Ophelia who has two unusual talents. She can read the history of any object she touches with her bare hands and she can travel through mirrors.
Ophelia is happy running a Museum of Primitive History but she is ordered by the rulers of Anima to leave her home and family and marry a man named Thorn who lives on the distant Pole Ark. After a humiliating first meeting with her huge and intimidating future husband, Ophelia travels to the Pole with her Aunt Rosaline to act as her chaperone until she is married. When they reach the capital, Citaceleste, Thorn leaves the two women in the care of a fellow member of the Dragon Clan, his aunt Berenilde. She proves to be a beautiful court lady who is pregnant by the Pole’s Family Spirit, Lord Farouk. Before going back to his duties as Farouk’s Treasurer, Thorn warns Ophelia that due to rivalries between clans her life may be in danger and she must trust no-one but Berenilde.
Ophelia does not get on well with Berenilde, who seems to despise her. When Ophelia sneaks out through a mirror to explore Citaceleste she is baffled by its many illusions and quickly gets into trouble with an aggressive member of the Dragon Clan. She is rescued by the charming Ambassador Archibald, the head of the Mirage Clan, but he is one of Thorn’s rivals at court. Even so, Thorn decides that Ophelia will be safer in Archibald’s palace of Clairdelune than in Berenilde’s isolated manor house. Berenilde goes to stay with Archibald, with Aunt Rosaline acting as her maid and Ophelia posing, with the help of an illusion, as a male servant.
Cut off from all communication with her family, Ophelia struggles to survive in an alien society in which servants are callously treated. Two of her fellow servants help her to understand the rules but she cannot trust them with her secret identity. She does discover that her future husband is one of the most hated men in Citaceleste. Surrounded by open hostility and unknown enemies, Ophelia faces many trials and dangers. Her situation becomes even more terrifying when she finally learns exactly why the enigmatic Thorn is determined to marry her….
My synopsis may make A Winter’s Promise sound like Science Fiction but definitely not of the realistic kind. Even some of the characters notice that they are living in an extraordinarily unlikely set-up and that is a key part of the plot. The through-the looking-glass world of The Mirror Visitor series has the feel of Fantasy so the books probably have to be placed in the rather awkward sub-genre of Science-Fantasy. The French don’t have a strong literary tradition of writing Fantasy novels but in recent years they’ve excelled at producing Graphic Novels and animated films with Fantasy elements. Dabos has a superb visual imagination and I kept thinking what a wonderful film A Winter’s Promise would make, or perhaps a whole Netflix series. Her world-building is delightfully inventive. I wished that the story could spend more time on Anima where objects come alive and respond to their owners’ feelings. The lenses of Ophelia’s glasses change colour according to her moods and her long hand-knitted scarf has a will of its own. In fact this is the only Fantasy series I know in which a scarf is one of the supporting characters.
Most of A Winter’s Promise takes place on the Pole Ark, an arctic region of icy wastes, frozen lakes and snowy forests inhabited by gigantic beasts that only the Dragon Clan are capable of hunting. In contrast, its capital seems to be full of warmth and sophistication. Citaceleste is a kind of floating Versailles with Steampunk technology, mainly built by a mysterious old woman with space-bending abilities. Its many levels contain mansions and palaces with grand salons and ball-rooms and exquisite climate-controlled gardens, all kept running by servants who live in much more squalid conditions than their aristocratic masters and mistresses. If ever a place was in need of a revolution it is Citaceleste. I enjoyed exploring this decadent city with Ophelia as she discovers just how much of its beauty and grandeur is illusory.
I felt that I was with Ophelia every step of the way because Dabos made me empathise so strongly with her heroine. When Ophelia was described in the very first chapter as old-fashioned, solitary and reserved, I immediately felt that she was my kind of person. Like Jane Eyre, Ophelia is small, plain and uninterested in what she wears, and I’m sure the resemblance is deliberate. Ophelia does have an intense inner life but she finds it difficult to express her feelings verbally. Fantasy novels and films are currently packed with powerful and confident women and that’s great but most of us don’t have super-strength so we can’t all be Wonder Woman. The qualities which make Ophelia a heroine – such as intellectual curiosity, integrity and kindness – are ones that anyone can emulate. I loved Ophelia because she isn’t strong all of the time. Sometimes she freezes up when she should act or is silent when she should speak out but when it really matters, she makes a stand.
Ophelia is is uninterested in romance but she is desperate for friends she can trust. At first she seems to be surrounded by unlikeable people, such as insensitive Aunt Rosaline, selfish Berenilde, unreliable Archibald and cold Thorn, whom she compares to a polar bear. However it is one of the strengths of the series that all these characters change in the course of the story and show different and more sympathetic sides to their personalities. Even the gigantic Lord Farouk who rules the Pole Ark turns out to have a vulnerable aspect. Dabos has created characters with a range of fantastic powers – Rosaline specializes in mending paper, Archibald is telepathically linked with all the members of his clan and Berenilde and Thorn can strike with invisible claws – but they are also believably flawed and complex people whom I wanted to go on reading about.
A Winter’s Promise has a satisfying story arc in which multiple ordeals prepare Ophelia to take up her place at Farouk’s court but the main plotline of the series does not really get going until Book Two. In The Missing of Clairdelune Ophelia investigates both a number of mysterious disappearances and the origins of her universe. The series becomes a search for God in a very literal sense, which is driven both by a sense of moral outrage at the unfairness of life and by a fear that the Arks are in danger of collapse. What caused the original Rupture? Who created the Family Spirits and why are their memories as fractured as their world? These questions are so fascinating that the eventual answers probably can’t live up to them. What is clear though is that Dabos’ work has important things to say about individual and cultural memory and the uses and abuses of knowledge. Museum Keeper Ophelia is dedicated to studying and preserving history but powerful people are trying to obliterate aspects of the past. Her fight for Truth makes A Winter’s Promise very much a novel for our times. Until next month….