The Winter Passing, the debut novel from Storge editor and Derbyshire-based writer Sarah Lay, gives a gothic twist to the modern fantasy genre that will delight and spook readers in equal measure. Pete Darrington reviews.
Out now as paperback and eBook
Sarah Lay‘s debut novel The Winter Passing is the opening salvo to a trilogy and if this first installment is anything to go by, fans of dark brooding ‘modern fantasy’ (by that I mean fantasy with a modern setting) will simply love this.
The basic plot follows the tried and tested Joseph Campbell formula of the hero’s journey – like all the classic tales of myth and magic – a protagonist who believes they’re nothing special discovers that they’re actually someone very special, usually via a life changing serendipitous sequence of events that also happens to catapult them into a perilous quest to save the world from a terrible evil. There’s nothing wrong with that and fortunately, that’s where the comparisons to the standard formula end.
Told in the first person, with an attention to detail that would give Mary Shelley or Bram Stoker a run for their money, The Winter Passing is the story of Centaury (Taury to her friends) Morrigan, a young woman who is unaware that she is the sole heiress to a position akin to that of a high priestess of an age-old-almost-forgotten religion based on a magical island. A chance meeting with a travelling musician who turns out to be so much more kick starts Taury’s awakening and as important, deliberately hidden memories of her distant childhood start to come flooding back she embarks on a quest to find out not only who she is, but what dark forces have conspired to hide her true identity from her and just why that might be.
As her memories start to return, so do her inherited magical powers and as the levels of peril start to spiral for our young heroes, Taury’s inexperience and inability to control her own raw untamed magic often poses the biggest threat of all – she could literally destroy the world trying to save it.
While tales of inherited magical powers from an ancient bloodline in a 21st Century setting might have echoes of Harry Potter about it, I can safely say that’s where the similarities end. While Centaury’s fictional universe is painted as richly as Potter’s (the depth and detail to the mythology is astonishing) The Winter Passing has a dark almost gothic novel quality to it and is genuinely scary in places. The lines between good and evil are not so clear cut and at times we are made to wonder who the bad guys really are and whether Taury herself might be the antagonist rather than the protagonist. I’m reminded of Robert C’ Obrien‘s The Silver Crown and Peter Dickinson‘s The Changes series – both aimed at young adult audiences (because grown ups didn’t read that kind of stuff back then), but both pulled no punches when it comes to scaring or spooking the reader.
There’s a great mix of introspection and soul searching as well as action and adventure, with a climax that has you on the edge of your seat. The plot twists and turns and at first the level of details transcribed can be a little overwhelming, but rest assured it is not superfluous – blink and you will miss vital clues as events seemingly inconsequential are actually key foreshadowing plot elements and clues to what the future holds. You get to the end of the story and feel compelled to read it again so that you can find all those cleverly laid breadcrumbs you missed the first time around, that I’m sure become even more crucial for understanding the events due to unfurl in the second and third volumes.
The characters are complex, likable and despicable in equal measures, both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ ones, just like people are in real life, which helps to give the otherwise fantastical tale a grounding in modern reality. It’s nice to have strong female leads that are central to the plot that prevent Taury coming across as a token feminist gesture.
One of my favourite aspects to the novel, in a cheeky nod to the original Star Wars trilogy, is that as the story plays out we realise that the members of the cast that we think are the big bad guys are actually the pawns in a much bigger game and that the real Machiavellian dark forces of an ultimate and ancient evil are yet to reveal themselves to the reader. This paves the way for an even bigger power struggle and leaving you genuinely fearful that our heroes (who of course survive this first skirmish by the skin of their teeth) might not be able to defeat them in the course of the next two instalments.
The Winter Passing by Sarah Lay will be available to buy now in paperback direct from the House of Morrigan store shortly but is available now as an eBook via Amazon.
You can hear Sarah talk about the novel, and the link between creativity and mental health, at Circularity Festival #1 tomorrow night (22 June) at the National Brewery Centre in Burton on Trent – more details here.
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