Genres: Fantasy, Secondary World Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Bisexual MC, secondary sapphic character, minor gay character, minor POC characters
Published on: 28th June 2022
Those who see the dead soon join them.
From the author of the critically-acclaimed Blackwing trilogy comes Ed McDonald's Daughter of Redwinter, the first of a brilliant fantasy series about how one choice can change a universe.
Raine can see—and more importantly, speak—to the dead. It’s a wretched gift with a death sentence that has her doing many dubious things to save her skin. Seeking refuge with a deluded cult is her latest bad, survival-related decision. But her rare act of kindness—rescuing an injured woman in the snow—is even worse.
Because the woman has escaped from Redwinter, the fortress-monastery of the Draoihn, warrior magicians who answer to no king and who will stop at nothing to retrieve what she’s stolen. A battle, a betrayal, and a horrific revelation forces Raine to enter Redwinter. It becomes clear that her ability might save an entire nation.
Pity she might have to die for that to happen…
I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
~she sees ghosts!
~but That is not a ghost
~much-appreciated exploration of trauma
~can you hear the beats?
I’m still not sure what made me pick up Daughter of Redwinter; at first glance, this looked like a book that couldn’t possibly be for me. I’ve hated stories about people who see ghosts since before I hit puberty; the author’s previous series has been described as grimdark, so there were even odds that this would be too; and there’s nothing in the blurb that hints at a diverse cast or especially interesting worldbuilding.
But something hooked me. I really can’t say what. Maybe I just trusted Tor/Forge (the publisher, of whom I’m quite fond) not to let me down? I can’t say. But I downloaded the sneak peek, just to try it out, and before I’d finished it I requested an ARC of the full book via Netgalley. Which I pounced on the moment I was approved.
That should give you some idea of how incredibly compelling McDonald’s writing is; of how completely it swept me away. It’s instantly immersive, and from the first page, I simply couldn’t put it down.
Raine ran away from a mother left crippled by her birth to join a harmless religious sect – one which follows ‘the colours’ with dancing and crystals and new-age-esque positivity. But the book opens with the group under siege, because a moment of kindness from Raine has led the local noble to believe the sect harbours those who can see ghosts – and in this world, anyone who can see ghosts is put to death. Thousands of years of history have engrained the idea that seeing the dead inevitably leads a person down a path of evil sorcery; it’s everyone’s duty to make sure ghost-seers are put down.
Raine has no interest at all in doing harm; she’s just trying to find a way to get her friends out of the fort they’re trapped in. But when she rescues a dying woman, she accidentally becomes tangled up in an act of immense dark magic and falls under the aegis of the Draoihn, unstoppable warrior-sorcerers whose mission is to protect the world from just this kind of magic. They sweep Raine away to their headquarters, a compound called Redwinter, where Raine has to build a new life for herself amidst the magic and politics all around.
So far, this doesn’t sound terribly unique – we’ve all seen something like this story-arc before. But there are several aspects of Daughter of Redwinter that stand out.
You can never trust a cobbler. Anyone who spends that much time thinking about feet has something wrong with them.
The first is Raine herself, who I adore without reservation. First-person narration is usually a huge no-no for me, but Raine’s voice is clear and incisive. I really loved how she never let herself get away with anything; she sees herself, and everyone around her, very clearly, almost to the point of mercilessness sometimes.
Part of this is definitely the fact that Raine experiences magically-induced emotional numbing after the opening events of the book. Emotional numbing is a rarely-discussed symptom of trauma, including PTSD and CPTSD, and it’s exactly what it sounds like: sufferers effectively shut-down emotionally, becoming detached and cut-off from most emotion, and often from their body as well. To put it in practical terms, where most trauma survivors struggle to talk about their trauma, someone experiencing emotional numbing is able to talk about it in a very matter-of-fact, blunt way, to the point that inexperienced listeners may think the person isn’t traumatised at all.
Emotional numbing is relatively rare and less well-known, much less common than the more visible, typical trauma symptoms like temper issues or panic attacks or risk-engaging behaviour. After being in and out of psych offices since I was two years old and across multiple countries, it wasn’t until I was 29 that someone finally recognised my own emotional numbing and was able to explain it to me. It’s just not talked about.
So I have no idea if it was McDonald’s intent to mimic a real mental health issue, but that’s what he did, and it’s one major reason Raine, and Daughter of Redwinter in general, means so much to me. It’s part validation, part recognition, part relief to see a character who shares this with me, a character I viscerally get in a way I don’t very emotional characters. It’s not the same as psychopathy (or rather, antisocial personality disorder, aka ASPD), and although Raine’s is magically induced by one of the Draoihn, I can’t help hoping this book might raise awareness a little.
Whether it does or not, the emotional numbing is an excellent plot device, and makes Raine very distinct from other heroines I’ve come across in similar story-arcs.
Which brings me to the second thing that makes Daughter of Redwinter stand out: although the general outline of this story looks familiar? In practice, it actually twists and turns in unexpected directions throughout, subverting and challenging both classic tropes and the expectations of the reader. I took it for granted that A Certain Thing was going to happen – it always happens! – but reader, it did not happen. And I delight in being surprised like that. Just as much as I adore a story that questions its own foundational premises – are ghost-seers destined for evil? Or a story that double-bluffs us – we’re braced for the Draoihn to be unreasonably fanatic, but what if their fanaticism is justified? And so on. I massively appreciated McDonald’s tricksiness, all the ways in which a story that has been marketed as Not For Me turned out to be, in fact, exactly for me.
Then there’s the worldbuilding; although McDonald doesn’t drown us in detail, there’s a very weighty sense to the world he’s created, with the effect that it all feels very real. Raine’s world has gone through multiple Ages and has some kind of record or understanding of several thousand years of history, and it’s not often I come across a story where that really feels legit; where a fictional world has that weight of fictional history behind it in a way that’s not overpowering, or lecturing, or info-dumping, but just…very organic.
And I’m not gonna lie, I liked the Scottish Highland influences visible in Raine’s part of the world. How often do we see that?!
The magic system manages to be both very simple – at least to explain – and really interesting; practitioners study until they reach/pass through/can access ‘gates’, with each gate conferring different abilities. The First Gate is, of course, the easiest to reach and use, and it gets progressively more difficult from there. But there’s clearly a lot more going on: over the course of the book, we encounter enchanted objects and witness magical events that don’t neatly fit into any of the Gate categories as they’ve been explained to us, and there are references to things like rituals, which, I have no idea how those are supposed to work.
Nor is it clear how exactly ghosts work – or whether all of the things Raine sees are actually ghosts. Threaded throughout Daughter of Redwinter is a subtle but powerful promise that capital-t Things are going on where we can’t see; that McDonald is only giving us a glimpse of the small picture, not the bigger one. Daughter of Redwinter is engaging and interesting in its own right – it’s not just setting the stage for a much bigger story to come. But it is setting the stage as well as being an excellent book on its own. We don’t have all the pieces yet, and we don’t know all the players, but by the end of the book we have some sense of…of the shape of what’s coming. And I’m pretty sure it’s going to be epic; epic as in awesome, and epic as in world-changing.
I’ve decided that what drew me to Daughter of Midwinter was my queerdar pinging – you would not believe how much I cackled when it became clear that Raine is bi; yay for discovering unexpectedly queer fantasy! – and I’m really glad it did. This is going on my favourites-of-2022 list, and I love McDonald’s writing and imagination so much I’ve even started reading his previous trilogy – even though it’s grimdark, and I don’t read grimdark. (And you know what? I’m enjoying it so far!)
This is an incredible fantasy that subverts the reader’s expectations every chance it gets, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough.