Book review: Everwinter by Elizabeth Baxter

Everwinter begins with the story of an ending. The king of Variss has journeyed up the slopes of a haunted mountain to release the ancient powers that dwell there – powers his ancestors had been charged with keeping safely locked away. He sets them loose, against the advice of pretty much everyone, and unsurprisingly, it is a bad idea. His act takes an army of men to their deaths, causes an avalanche that buries all of Variss and plunges the land of Thanderley into an ice age.

Everwinter is the first book in Elizabeth Baxter’s The Wrath of the Northmen trilogy. Set three years after destruction of Variss, the book does little more than provide a lead-up to the inevitable quest to discover what caused the disaster. The writing, for the most part, is fairly standard epic fantasy fare, with its talk of ancient magic, old gods and their human offspring – but with science added in.

What made me want to write about it, though, was a post by Tansy Rayner Roberts about the use of the concept of historical authenticity to justify sexism in fantasy writing. In “Historically Authentic Sexism in Fantasy. Let’s Unpack That”, Roberts questions the practice of treating history as a uniform repository of truth from which fantasy writers can reliably extract a ‘realistic’ picture of men and women’s lives in historical societies. All too often, this picture is one that prioritises the exploits of men while marginalising women – all because this would, supposedly, be truer to mainstream narratives about the past, or generally about societies that are less technologically developed than our own.

Roberts questions this practice (which I prefer to call lazy world building) by putting the focus on the fact that those narratives are history. If (heterosexual, white, usually wealthy) men tend to be the active subjects of those narratives, that speaks more about the privilege that continues to be afforded to their voices than it does about their relative importance in the actual subject matter of history (and fantasy).

Most epic fantasy writers draw, to varying degrees, upon motifs from real-world histories and cultures to build up the settings of their novels, and Everwinter is no exception.The book is set in the city-states of Ral Tora and Chellin – two very different societies that epitomise (not always subtly) the tensions between science and religion, reason and magic, that lie at the heart of the story. From the beginning, however, Baxter makes it clear that men and women have an equal stake in the resolution of these tensions. While incorporating many motifs from what might have been ancient Roman and other societies, she never lapses into an exclusive focus on the heroics of male fighters and schemers, plus their lusty female love interests, just because this would be more consistent with what “history” tells us about men and women’s social roles.

The more I saw of Chellin and Ral Tora, the more it became obvious that Baxter was taking great pains to avoid replicating ‘sexism as a default’ even when, let’s face it, she could have easily got away with it. Any reader of epic fantasy might be disappointed, but surely not surprised, to open yet another book set in a strongly patriarchal society, where only a few exceptional women manage to distinguish themselves from their passive, vain and man-obsessed peers – by developing magical powers or running away on quests that are, as much as anything else, quests against a life confined to domesticity, marriage and children. These exceptional women do not care about their looks, and talk with disdain about dresses, romance and other supposed trappings of femininity. Almost always, though, they also happen to be naturally beautiful. And it never takes them very long to find true love.

Everwinter is different. In Chellin and Ral Tora, the participation of women in public life is a matter of course – and so is their presence in all lines of work, whether it involves fighting, politics, worship or scholarship. In Chellin, men and women both serve as members of the Senate. Astrid, the Regal of Chellin, and Ravessa, its High Priestess, are serious, ambitious women who worked their way up from the bottom of the social ladder. Their capacity to deal with the demands of leadership are never put in question because of their gender (or, I couldn’t help noticing, because of High Priestess Ravessa’s pregnancy). Women join armies and elite combat units; Commander Alara, a woman, is the leader of Ral Tora’s City Watch. Women work as engineers, scholars and healers; some of them have children, but at no point are their careers treated like something unnatural because of that.

The female characters we see the most of are Astrid and also Falen (an engineer and, as we later learn, the exiled daughter of the king of Variss). These women are very much defined by what they do. They grapple with tactical and logistical problems, pursue their own agendas and are generally portrayed as active subjects of their own lives. They are not perfect, but their mistakes have nothing to do with their relationships with men: Astrid is driven by her desire to be a good ruler and save her people from the Everwinter (rather than by her lingering feelings for High Priest Tamardi), and Falen is too concerned first about her work and then about her homeland to spend much time mulling over the faintly signposted attraction between her and Bram Thornley (an apprentice engineer and one of the book’s unlikely heroes).

This is not to say that Everwinter offers us a radical vision of equality, because it doesn’t. Baxter does not exactly turn the patriarchy on its head, or do away with gender roles altogether. The city of Ral Tora is, after all, ruled entirely by men: no woman can ever hope to rise through the ranks, as Astrid did in Chellin, and join the Council of the City Fathers. And the high level of equality that women appear to have in the world of work (or at least in the Engineering Guild) does not extend to their social behaviour. Baxter makes Bram Thornley seem more human by emphasising traits that are not exactly typical of a born fantasy hero; we see him drinking with his fellow apprentices, often to excess, and nursing hangovers during morning shifts. With only one exception, however, young women are absent from the taverns of Ral Tora – except when they wait at tables, or come to nag their drunken brothers into returning home for dinner. And Thanderley’s version of equality has another obvious missing piece: though the women in Everwinter fill many traditionally male-dominated roles, there are no men who do the opposite. Caring jobs in Chellin and Ral Tora appear to be filled entirely by women (although perhaps we will see this lingering gender divide subverted in one of the later books).

For all these criticisms, I found Everwinter to be a refreshing read. The fact that it does not, in the end, overturn the gendered division of labour altogether is perhaps only to be expected. It is a fantasy book set in a world that incorporates many traditional features of an epic fantasy adventure, and as such, it is never going to be free of the hierarchies that gave shape to them. Yet Baxter tries harder than many other writers in her genre to incorporate these features without also picking up entrenched stereotypes and patriarchal ideas about what women can be and do. The resulting world may not be entirely new, but it is a more imaginative one because of it.

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