The Wolf of Winter

by Paula Volsky
Bantam, pb, 357 pages, $12.95
ISBN: 0-553-37210-6

Prince Varis doesn't begin Paula Volsky's second novel as an evil sorcerer, but he quickly proves to have a natural affinity for the role. The bookish younger brother of the king, Varis is physically and emotionally unequipped for the boisterous court life in the frozen kingdom of Rhazaulle, and he suffers considerably as a result. His drift into necromancy is almost entirely accidental, in much the same way any addict's occasional escape gradually takes over his life. Nor are the results entirely different; the capital city's old, retired prison (modern correctional methods prefer to bleed criminals to death on The Funnel) is filled with spifflicates, the mind-blasted remnants of necromancers who have overdosed on the powerful drugs required to focus one's mind strongly enough to summon and control the dead.

Varis is careful, however, and postpones the inevitable spifflication by strictly rationing his consumption of necromantic drugs and diverting himself with other projects-such as tearing beggars limb from limb or using his control over ghosts to eliminate the seven people between himself and the throne. Volsky's portrait of the prince's descent into evil (accompanied by his concurrent rise to power) is convincing and chilling, rendered all the more gruesome by the hapless efforts of his victims (both human and incorporeal) to resist his singleminded will.

One of the prince's doomed victims does manage to smuggle her two children from the country, however, and the second half of the book is largely the story of Shalindra's attempt to survive the political machinations of her sponsor, occasional assassination attempts by Varis, and the usual trials of growing up long enough to assist her brother in his quest to take the Rhazaullean throne. While the plot of the second half is hardly unfamiliar, Volsky weaves enough ambiguity into the story so that readers are kept on edge-less from uncertainty about the eventual winner of the struggle than from fear about what the price of that victory will be. The usurper Varis is, after all, a superlative ruler, whose people care less about his liberal reforms than about the cloud of unproven allegations that surround his accession to the throne.

The Wolf of Winter is a strongly written novel set in a well-visualized world. Unlike most cold-weather fantasy, the environment is a motif throughout and not simply a metaphor. Volsky manages to avoid the familiar enough to imbue freshness into her work, which mixes heroic tropes with disturbing images and an appropriately ambivalent (though not unsatisfying) ending.

I loved this book, though it was a hard review to write. My favorite line was the bit about "modern correctional methods," which no one but me seemed to like. Volsky is a marvelous writer, though not a fast one, alas.

First appeared in Horror magazine, February 1994.

Copyright © 2004 by Leigh Grossman