Winterlong by Elizabeth Hand (Winterlong Trilogy: Book 1)

9/10 And I think to myself, what a wonderful world

Usually, my lady is not a fan of extremely dark, dystopian fiction. I was intrigued therefore when she recommended Winterlong as something she sincerely enjoyed, and something she believed I would also enjoy, given my own love of exploring alien worlds, and stories which highlight the best of humanity against a dark background.

Wendy Wanders likes her life in Hel. Sold to the human engineering laboratory as an autistic child, the experiments which were fatal in so many other cases were utterly successful with Wendy. Now at 17; though still suffering occasional seizures and unable to feel emotions as others do, Wendy is an empath. Through "tapping" people's neurotransmitters, Wendy is able to experience and sort through traumatic memories and emotions, a talent which she uses both to provide therapy to the patients in Hel, and to share what she gathers with her fellow empaths. Wendy cares nothing for the city outside, the ruined city amidst the trees once called Washington DC, where mutated children known as lazars scavenge the streets amidst gene slaves and deadly plants, where curators of crumbling museums desperately hang on to knowledge of a fragmented past, and where the Paphians, sacred courtesans chosen for their outstanding beauty and trained from childhood, trade in sexual favours amidst a round of glittering masks, plays and revels.

Wendy does not even know she has a twin brother, Raphael Miramar, who, despite a beauty and prestige sufficient to earn him a lifelong position in his Paphian house, decides to risk everything by joining his patron Rowland among the curators, eager to find out more of the world and its history.

Wendy's life is about to change; tapping the mind of one of her patients she receives a vision of a hanged boy, a vision which comes with a presentiment of death, for among the Paphians the hanged boy represents the gaping one, Lord Bail, a figure of misrule and chaos who also has a twin. Pursued by a mad dictator bent on exploiting Wendy's vision for power and domination, both Wendy and Rafael find their plans shattered, their safety cruelly torn away, and their lives forced into new paths, paths which will converge at the most uproarious festival of all, the Paphian feast of Winterlong.

There is no denying, Winterlong is a difficult book. In many ways it reminded me of Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun. Told in long alternating chapters from Wendy and Raphael's perspectives, the book’s style is complex, delicate, dark and occasionally brutally blunt. It is fairly easy to create an unpleasant atmosphere or the sense of a dystopian world by lingering on grizzly details of slaughter, rape and torture, especially if characters in the text itself find such things as horrific as the reader. Yet, Hand creates a world where death by mutant plants or diseases, casual viral bombardment from a distant and unknowable war, and seeing children as a tradable commodity are just the facts of life, a tactic which is in some ways even more effective. Yet, what is really astounding, is for all that the world is intensively dark, Hand also fills it with complex characters and situations. Indeed, to say how uncaring most people in the world are about things like death, disease and child prostitution, Hand gives us several genuinely decent and likable characters who share normal caring bonds of love and friendship with each other.

Speaking of characters, like Gene Wolfe's apprentice torturer Severian, Wendy and Raphael are both rather complex people who are not always easy to like. Wendy begins as an inherently selfish and self-obsessed person. Casual about "tapping" emotions and experiences from others, usually by simply tasting their bodily fluids, often without their consent, and quite callous about how her actions affect others especially when it comes to getting what she wants; such as the moment she kisses one of the aides at Hel, and then threatens to get him arrested and executed for interfering with one of the laboratory's experimental empaths unless he helps her, Wendy's attitude is problematic even before she gains the ability to reduce others to suicidal despair on command. Even concerning her own life, Wendy is peculiarly detached, not bothered when she's informed of the new governor taking over Hel, or the fact that she and her fellow empath's comparatively easy existence will soon degenerate into more brutal experiments.

Raphael starts out as far more likable, a young man seeking for something outside of the round of balls, parties, and patrons which makes up the world of the Paphian houses, despite the horrors of the outside world or the very real potential that patronage could devolve into mistreatment. Indeed, despite Raphael being a professional courtesan whose clients include male and female patrons, in many ways, as a young man eager to leave home, despite leaving those he loves, he was the more familiar character, which meant his story was on the whole more tragic. With the Paphians, Hand's touch is genius, neither painting them as brutal sexual slavers, nor trying to justify the fact that they are very much exploiting people. Even though the Paphians we see (especially including the favoured Raphael), are pampered and cosseted, free with drugs, interhouse snobbery and decadently outlandish fashions, and even though the Paphians themselves see their own lot as a religious duty, Hand keeps slipping in little needles to keep the reader off balance. One Paphian acquaintance of Raphael's warns him that patrons outside Paphian houses tend to enjoy causing pain (she has the whip to prove it), while on another occasion one of Raphael's seven year old "bed cousins'', from another house, greets him with a decidedly adult kiss. Indeed, despite the Paphians' generally kindly treatment of children, often Hand uses little details to really make things feel icky, from one child noting a cut on her wrist and casually mentioning that her female patron "made the pinion a little too tight", to even having Wendy dispassionately remark on one very young Paphian's childish scent when she taps her. Despite the genuinely loving way the Paphians behave with each other, and indeed with some at least of their patrons. From the kindly treatment of their working escorts, to the casual way those too old to still be beautiful are made into domestic slaves, to even their religion, traditions and rituals, Hand's creation of a complex, and at times incredibly uncomfortable culture is masterful.

And yet, despite the hints, Hand does not dwell on lurid descriptions of sex, even when Raphael and Wendy (talking in first person), are directly involved with lurid actions. Indeed, in the field of writing shocks and darkness, Hand is always balanced; likely one reason my lady enjoyed this book despite her distaste for grimdark. Sometimes Hand gives us sensuously rich details of decaying bodies or rotting ghouls, at other times she can do more with a single shocking sentence than a whole X-rated scene, such as the point one character casually notes that Hel was conducting brain surgery without anaesthetic.

Another faction we see are the curators, groups of historians, zoologists and botanists, trading with the Paphians for sexual favours while they keep academic knowledge alive in a crumbling city. It is here that Hand's world building gets truly complex, since like Gene Wolfe's Urth, the ties back to the world we know, or even the ways the world outside the city works are pretty convoluted. Despite familiar Shakespearian plays, or hints about "the sorrowing Lincoln", or "the library of conquest", I probably wouldn't have even been able to tell this book was set in Washington DC but for Hands' introduction, although comments I've read from Washington DC residents note that the city is very recognisable to those who live there. With characters speaking of devastating "ascensions", changes of government so extreme they seem more like natural disasters, the present government so distant that all we know of them is their desire for more weapons in their endless war with another country; with even the name of the current country barely known. All this means that even getting a handle on the structure of the present society is difficult, let alone how it came apart. Indeed, where I usually find I'm able to pin down the central details of any SF book’s world fairly early on, with Hand I was genuinely at sea for most of the book, often because Hand herself has details that are literally contradictory, such as one occasion in which a curator claims ancient Egyptians were the founding fathers, and another when Rafael mentions a radio play from "the united provinces", which is apparently somewhere else. While this is confusing, at the same time, the poetic brilliance and visceral fascination of the story just kept me hooked, and the fact I couldn't honestly determine how Hand's future history worked was more an added enigma, than a lack.

Not only the history and basic setting, but the world itself, and the way it's described is also captivating and strange. Like Wolfe, Hand has a love of rare words, such as "lazar", an old word for leper. However, just because Hand tends to be casually blunt about nastier details, doesn't mean she doesn't have sensual, meditative or even poetic passages, even if those meditations often involve overwhelming ruins, or the squalor of a future zoo where only the efforts of curators keep alive animals that would otherwise not be able to survive in the city.

Oddly enough, despite the complexity of the setting and characters, the structure of the plot is fairly straightforward. First we are introduced to Wendy and Raphael, then we see them taken out of their safe environments and go out into the city meeting friends, allies and enemies, making discoveries and mistakes, then eventually coming together for a final confrontation. Hand honestly surprised me with the character development here, with both Raphael and Wendy nearly unrecognisable at the end of the story compared to where they started. So often in fiction we can swiftly lose our sympathy for a character who changes beyond recognition, for whom the author gives license to behave badly due to their protagonist status, yet, even though Hand has some radical character changes, none of them felt artificial. Thus, even when the principal characters do some pretty horrible things, I never felt betrayed or lost interest in following them, since Hand explains their motivations so well. This is definitely the first time I've ever felt myself sympathising with a character who actually engages in an act of necrophilia, even though Hand makes no bones about how nasty the necrophilia is.

Not only the main characters, but most of the side characters are wonderfully three dimensional. Even with a bunch of ghoulish lazars, fanatically following their leader, or a feather headed Paphian Himbo, Hand's characters continually surprised me. Part of this, is that, though the book is told in first person, Hand still allows that her characters could be mistaken about the people around them, for example early on, Wendy believes one man simply desires her, a desire she is quite content to exploit both for her own advantage, and for the vampiric rush of tasting his blood and seeing what it feels like. Yet, only later do we realise, along with Wendy, this "desire", might involve more than just sexual gratification. Indeed, both characters have fantastic journeys, taking in Shakespearian farce, zombocalypse and rivalries for love into the bargain.

My only minor issue with the plot's progression is it's pacing. Told in nine very long chapters, each chapter is essentially a self-contained novella. This meant in some cases, the new appearances of Rafael and Wendy followed immediately after what had happened previously, while on other occasions, Hand needed to engage in flashbacks or give long informational passages to bring us up to speed. This meant the pace of the story rather slowed towards the middle, albeit that both the pace, and the tension definitely rev up during the final third.

Though most of the secondary cast, such as the vivacious archivist Franca, or the gentle and elegant evolved simian actress Miss Scarlet Pan, are as beautifully drawn as the protagonists, I was rather disappointed with the book’s villain. An official of a government we literally never see, who goes mad, is tortured and castrated by gene slaves, then ends up ruling over them apparently by just telling them to stop. All in all, he felt far more of a convenient plot device than an actual character. I actually thought his lieutenant, the lazar boy and ex Paphian Oleander was far more nuanced and interesting. That being said, with a world where literally anything could, and indeed does happen, Hand obviously needed something to bring things together and provide a threat, so he fulfils his function adequately. Though Hand probably should have either skimped on his rather contradictory backstory; leaving him an unknowable menace, or given a bit more context to the world he comes from. For example, even though he's referred to as "the aviator", and is supposedly a decorated war hero, we never even find out what kind of aircraft he flew, or what actual battle he fought in, not when he's literally the only member of the government or the military to appear in the whole book.

Another major plot element is the Paphians' religion, and religion generally. This is where Hand's prose dip into the profoundly spiritual. I suspect (given Hand mentioning her intention to discuss the nature of consciousness), that she intended Wendy's interactions with the hanged boy to be mystical; leaving it up to interpretation as to whether this was in fact in Wendy's mind or not. The problem here is that we have too many real occurrences of people other than Wendy seeing, and indeed interacting with the hanged boy, including at one point an entire theatre audience, to really make the possibility of his reality questionable. Then again, there are occasions when we definitely do see things that exist within the characters' minds, or indeed the minds of others. Usually I'd say this is a contradiction, but to be honest, here, with the whole novel so steeped in sensual poetry, hints at a dark world and odd points of beauty or revelation, I was content to just run with things.

The book's ending is simply beautiful, bringing together the questions of religion, transformation and transcendence. I particularly liked how, even though the hanged boy's twin, the Magdalen, a seemingly female counterpart to a fearful male deity did not manifest until the end, her manifestation was no more comforting than the hanged boy’s. Ultimately things came down to either Wendy's own perceptions, or to a more positive religious experience, leading to an utterly transcendent moment which counter balances all the horrors we've seen, and affirms that yes, there is such a thing as hope.

My only actual issue with the conclusion was that Hand made some pretty basic editorial and logic gaffs in the final chapter. On two separate occasions she forgot Wendy's hands were bound (requiring her to be tied up again). Then the villain's most terrifying minions, the wolf/man hybrids known as Ardmen, creatures whose threat looms throughout the book, were made completely impotent because apparently you just need to tell them "down boy!" and they stop attacking.

There were also at least some plot details, such as a mentioned cache of weapons, including a missile primed for launch, which didn't seem to translate into an actual effect, albeit I suspect that here this is more due to my lack in understanding their place in the plot, than any mistake on Hand's part, given everything else which was going on.

Then again, the writing, the character journeys and the sheer transcendent wonder of the thing, especially given how profoundly horrible some of the things leading up to the finale are, just plain worked! Poetic, euphoric and uplifting, this is one occasion where the often voiced sentiment , "well who cares, it's cool!" would almost be appropriate.

Winterlong is a very complex book, indeed I was not surprised to find someone has apparently made it the subject of their doctoral thesis. Hand herself describes it as a bloated mess, and yes, not all of the elements come together. But sometimes, poetry, philosophy and vision are indeed enough, and Winterlong is definitely one of those times.

Shakespearian comedy, Pinocchio, Edgar Allan Poe, one could play spot the literary influence all day and still only scratch the surface, Likewise, child prostitution, war, death and disease, and intensive disregard for human life, set against an odyssey of wonder, love, hope and spiritual awakening.

Winterlong has been a particularly difficult book to review, simply because, even in just trying to give a vague idea of what the book is about, and some broad strokes of what I felt did, or did not work, there is so much to say. This is one of my longest reviews, and yet I've still only scratched the surface, even as regards my own thoughts and feelings.

in an era when so many books are praised for their "message", or "themes", when all they do is simplistically reiterate that sexism or racism is wrong, a book like Winterlong, a book which presents the reader so much to think about, including things that are deeply uncomfortable and disturbing, and whose actual "themes", need to be teased out, experienced and pondered, is a breath of fresh air, especially considering that for all its complexity, it still does end on a "message", of hope.

The most basic thing I can say about Winterlong, is that if people really want to explore flawed, human, at times beautiful, at times extremely ugly people trying to cope in a world that is truly strange, unnerving and alien, well here it is!

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Elizabeth Hand's Winterlong Trilogy series


Winterlong Trilogy: Book 1

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