First, a confession. I am not into grimdark fantasy novels. Give me hopeful escapism any day over the bleak, violent, and dark stories featured in most grimdark novels. Don’t get me wrong, I like good action, and gritty realism and violence, but most grimdark novels are too violent and too depressing for my taste. I don’t seek out grimdark novels to read for the above reasons, but I had a chance to meet Aaron Bunce at an author event recently and I was lucky enough to win an audiobook copy of The Winter of Swoards, and while I don’t think this one book will change my mind about a whole genre, I will say that I enjoyed this story.
Aaron does a great job in two areas: characters and setting. The setting is real and gritty, a low-magic world (there are divine healers, but not any powerful wizards and the like) where the great kingdoms of man and dwarves have vanished and the remnants of the human kingdom struggle for survival. Things have been peaceful, but as the novel starts you realize that the monsters that hide in the shadows are starting to stir.
The Winter of Swords is an epic fantasy, so we follow multiple character arcs in the story. What I like is that each of the characters are common, ordinary people thrown into unexpected situations. These are not mighty warriors, kings, and queens, but normal people struggling to get by in an unforgiving world. As the story progresses, we learn more about these characters, their own secrets, and the fates that await them.
I do have a few quibbles about the story. Aaron is very detailed and descriptive in his settings, characters, and the action. Good to a point, sometimes I felt that there was too much description that slowed the pace and action, especially in scenes that should have been fast-moving. The descriptions were good, and fit the character and scene, but it sometimes felt I was slogging through mud to get through the end of the scene because of them. The other quibble I have was the plethora of what seemed like ancillary characters to me. There were some characters who popped in midway through the book for a couple of chapters, then the disappeared again. They did not contribute to the story of the main characters we’d been following, and even if their story was important to a larger story arc, it was distracting and again, broke up the pacing of the story. (Also, I felt that the stories presented in these brief flashes were left unresolved, and that in itself was distracting and left me feeling unfulfilled.)
If you enjoy grim fantasy filled with violence and despair, in true grimdark style, and if you like a grand epic fantasy with complex characters and a storyline that weaves between them, then you will enjoy The Winter of Swords. I may not pick up other grimdark novels, but Aaron has done a wonderful job of weaving this story together that I will be interested to see what happens in the next novel.
The audiobook was narrated by C.J. Grey who did a fantastic job of bringing the characters and setting to life. He is a master storyteller who makes each character distinct, and his inflections and tone helped to heighten the tension in all the right places. There were no problems with the performance by Grey, or in the audio quality.