In Winter’s Shadow is the final book in Gillian Bradshaw’s DOWN THE LONG WIND trilogy, an elegantly written historical fantasy about King Arthur that’s inspired by the Welsh legends. While the first two books, Hawk of May and Kingdom of Summer, have focused on Gwalchmai (Sir Gawain), this last novel is written from Gwynhwyfar’s perspective. You certainly don’t need to read the previous books to fully appreciate In Winter’s Shadow, but if you’re a fan of the time period or the legends, you’ll probably want to read Hawk of May and Kingdom of Summer at some point. They are lovely historical stories.
In In Winter’s Shadow, Gwynhwyfar gives us some of the history of the Roman Empire and its relationship to Britain. She tells of how when Rome left, the petty kings of Britain squabbled amongst themselves and were in danger of being overrun by the Saxons until Arthur declared himself emperor and forced them to unite. She also gives some of her own backstory — how she hates women’s work, prefers to study, and was her father’s pet. She spends her days working tirelessly to advance Arthur’s kingdom while he’s away on campaign. She runs her household, manages supplies for Arthur and his soldiers, and extracts taxes from the petty kings and the church. It is hard to deal with a war-torn country, plotting kings, and resentful clergy.
Gwynhwyfar desperately wants a child who will be Arthur’s heir. So far she has miscarried the children she’s conceived. She fears that Arthur will divorce her, but he refuses. She is jealous of Medraut, Arthur’s bastard son whose mother was the evil Morgawse. Medraut’s presence at Camelot reminds Gwynhwyfar of her barrenness. It frustrates her that Arthur has a son out of that hateful relationship with his stepsister, but can’t get one out of love with Gwynhwyfar. Medraut is still disrupting the unity of Arthur’s band and Morgawse haunts Arthur and Gwynhwyfar’s relationship. Thus, Morgawse, even though she’s dead, still threatens to bring Arthur — and all of Britain — down.
All of this is a lot of stress for Gwynhwyfar, which explains why she makes a couple of REALLY BIG mistakes, and why we, the readers, feel empathetic toward her even as we realize she’s being REALLY STUPID. The consequences of Gwynhwyfar’s sins are severe and instead of making Arthur’s reign more secure, she ends up destroying everything.
Though the story is slow and repetitive at first, In Winter’s Shadow eventually takes off and becomes quite compelling. Gwynhwyfar faces several moral dilemmas that are just as relevant today as they were back then. Is murder ever justifiable? What about adultery? When our leaders fail to act, when is it okay to take matters into our own hands?
In Winter’s Shadow is tragic and painful. It’s a disaster story. It’s the story about how well-meaning people can royally screw things up. It’s about the end of personal relationships and the end of an empire. Gillian Bradshaw succeeds in making both seem equally tragic.
Once again, I listened to Nicole Quinn’s narration of the audio version. She has such a beautiful voice and I especially liked her in this book because it’s told from a woman’s perspective.