A Winter’s Promise

winters_promise A Winter’s Promise (Mirror Visitor Quartet, Book1)
by Christelle Dabos
Europa Editions, Sept. 2018
Reviewed from ARC

Plot Summary: Plain-spoken, headstrong Ophelia cares little about appearances. Her ability to read the past of objects is unmatched in all of Anima and, what’s more, she possesses the ability to travel through mirrors, a skill passed down to her from previous generations. Her idyllic life is disrupted, however, when she is promised in marriage to Thorn, a taciturn and influential member of a distant clan. Ophelia must leave all she knows behind and follow her fiancé to Citaceleste, the capital of a cold, icy ark known as the Pole, where danger lurks around every corner and nobody can be trusted. There, in the presence of her inscrutable future husband, Ophelia slowly realizes that she is a pawn in a political game that will have far-reaching ramifications not only for her but for her entire world. (from jacket copy)

Queer Rep: Looking at that description, one can’t help but wonder where the representation features in this hefty (nearly 500 page) novel. Is one or both of these protagonists bi? Is there maybe a secondary character—a classic queer sidekick perhaps? All sound guesses, but the queer rep in this book is a little more complicated. Ophelia is somewhere on the asexual spectrum—maybe gray ace or demisexual/demiromantic—but not one of those labels is mentioned in the text, and from a world-building standpoint, in a society that occupies a planet splintered into floating arcs overseen by immortal siblings, “asexuality” isn’t necessarily a word that characters would use.

We talk a lot about on-the-page representation, author intention, and the vital importance of accurate, empowering mirrors in a text. Ophelia is the kind of antiheroine that effortlessly pulls at readers’ empathy, winning their support before a conflict is even fully introduced. But more than this, she is a fully realized, expertly crafted protagonist with complexity and motivations that grow messy as they both drive and respond to the plot. Ophelia’s ace spectrum identity is integral to her character and narrative development. And while “asexual” and other labels aren’t bandied about, Ophelia is quite clear. When she is forced into a political marriage that will remove her from all she knows and shatter the life she envisioned for herself, Ophelia notes that she has never had feelings of romantic love or attraction, a fact that increases her anxiety about the whole situation. Throughout the narrative, she recognizes and comments on other characters’ beauty or attractiveness, but remains detached from it, particularly noticeable when these characters are accustomed to manipulating others with their looks. And when the frigid Thorn seems to thaw as the novel moves towards its climax, Ophelia is distressed to think that he has fallen in love with her, in part because they are trying to thwart a political plot that threatens both their lives and also because she insists that she does not return her fiancé’s feelings.

This book is likely to fly under the radar, but it is nonetheless important for what it represents: 1) ace representation, which is sorely needed with or without labels; 2) a growing body of excellently crafted YA fantasy that actually uses every one of its many pages; and 3) a highlight on the flexibility and fluidity of Stonewall criteria. The latter is essential not only because it ensures that more queer identities, more modes of representation, and more cultures that produce queer kidlit (French in this case) are considered and honored, but also because it embodies the very function of queerness in a normative society—bringing fluidity to a rigid status quo.

Final Word: This novel pushes Stonewall eligibility to more than one of its limits, but it does so in all the best ways, though some racial and gender diversity wouldn’t have gone amiss in an otherwise thoughtfully built world. Given that honors and medals have been given to characters of less depth and to representation less compelling, it’ll be interesting to see what the committee does with such a rich complexity on their hands.

Have you read A Winter’s Promise—perhaps in the original French? What do you think about its representation and eligibility?

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