Tom Deitz spends rather a lot of time during the course of Bloodwinter telling the reader just how extraordinarily awful the winters of his fantasy kingdom of Eron are, how Herculean must be the efforts of those who seek to cross the frozen wasteland. Without getting cuter with this analogy, there were stretches where I felt much the same about reading the novel.
That isn’t to say that Bloodwinter is ever painful to read. Deitz has an excellent command of language and he uses it well, so the prose is never actually as listless as the events. The cover quotes inform me that the characterization was well-received and I too thought Deitz did a rather good job on that score (with a few notable exceptions, which I’ll describe below).
One recognizable problem with the novel right off the bat, though, is that it really doesn’t seem to have been planned as well as it might have been. The prologue deals with a dreadful plague coming down upon Eron, ending with the usual dramatic flourish and priming the reader for a narrative with sickness as a constant factor. That narrative never appears. In fact, when the narrative resumes, the plague is over and done with and there never appears to be any particular reason for it to have happened at all. It’s bizarre, as though Deitz was writing the whole opening simply as a hook.
After the anticlimax of the plague, the plot gets underway with a focus on a few young people, these being Avall, Strynn, Merryn, Eddyn, and Kraxxi. To Deitz’s credit, they’re all fairly distinct and well-realized figures, though the complicated web of their relationships sometimes feels like material from a soap opera. Strynn, one of the greatest blacksmiths of all time (also coincidentally the most beautiful woman in the world), is married to Avall, one of the greatest goldsmiths of all time. Neither of them is actually all that ecstatic about their new-found matrimony, however, because they happened to be childhood friends and the whole thing is rather awkward. They were forced into a hasty union, however, because Strynn was raped by Eddyn (coincidentally another greatest-blah-blah-of-all-time in their generation), and due to her golden fecundity of the gods was immediately impregnated by a random attack. Marriage to someone is in the cards, and Avall is on hand.
Next we come to Merryn, Avall’s sister and apparently one of the greatest warriors of her generation. A talented family, which also happens to be a royal family. Yes, in addition to being soul-blastingly good at whatever it is they do, these two are also cousins to the present king of Eron. Finally, there’s Kraxxi, the prince of hostile neighbor Ixti to the South, who comes North to escape justice and finds love… in the arms of Merryn, who as the king’s cousin also just so happened to be the one to stumble upon the royalty of another nation as he blundered around in the wilderness.
There is a whole lot of this sort of thing in Bloodwinter. Deitz just doesn’t seem to have taken the time to plan this very well. The coincidences and unlikely happenstances just keep piling up as the narrative progresses. Deitz occasionally makes a token effort to explain how it’s all less unlikely than it appears, but it feels like the sweaty man in the seat next to me at a screening of a bad genre movie trying to explain how it would all make sense if I’d read the comic book.
Eventually, despite the distinct voice for each character, the lazy plotting began to affect my enjoyment of them as well. I might like Merryn (and I did, quite a bit), but there’s only so long I can continue relating to her when she does something completely ridiculous every so often purely because the plot demands it. For instance, at one point she feels bound to make a borderline suicidal rush out into the wilderness alone when she could easily have had support. The only genuine reason we ever get for this is that she’s feeling emotional and doesn’t really know why she did it.
When these are the sort of plot twists that keep Bloodwinter running, it’s very hard to take the book seriously, and the reading experience becomes rather plodding and dreary, going through the motions after the spell has been broken. It doesn’t help that the looming villain of the piece, the King of Ixti, is the exception to the rule of well-realized characters, an oafish buffoon who feels about as capable of conquering and ruling Eron as Fred Flintstone.
Again, the characterization is rather good and Deitz can write well when he puts his mind to it. The novel is fairly entertaining at times and I don’t doubt it would be a fine bit of reading for a long train ride. The lazy plotting, though, is a festering wound in the book’s center, poisoning enjoyment of the experience and slowly turning even vital, interesting characters into figures the reader can only hold in contempt for the decisions they’ve made.