Colin Harvey – Winter Song

Colin Harvey - Winter Song coverA recent collaboration between new genre imprint Angry Robot and the British Science Fiction Association saw all BSFA members sent a free copy of Colin Harvey’s new novel, Winter SongVector (the BSFA’s critical journal) editor Niall Harrison and reviews editor Martin Lewis organised a reading group for the novel, and the end of April saw a swathe of bloggers and reviewers sharing their thoughts on the book. I’ve missed the boat on this one – I’ve missed a fucking  flotilla – but what the hell, I’ve read it so I may as well add my two pence.

Winter Song is set on a partially terraformed human colony that is structured around the emulation of old Icelandic cultures (the novel, in fact, is inspired by the old Icelandic Sagas as well as contemporary Icelandic fiction), with the planet’s scattered population gathered into small clans under the leadership of “Gothis”. The clans exist in a perilous and freezing environment in which scraping out a living is a challenge that occupies every waking moment, to which must be added the danger of local fauna. The terraformers who once oversaw the planet’s development are long gone, political and economic factors leading to abandonment of the colony and its inhabitants. The novel’s protagonist, Karl Allman, is plunged into this world when his starship is ambushed and destroyed by a faction of humanity that opposes modified Radicals like him.

For much of the novel Karl is nursed back to health by the clan that found him. Principally he’s cared for by Bera, the unmarried mother of a dead bastard child, under the watchful eye of the Gothi Ragnar, a harsh and pragmatic man prone to fits of rage. Ragnar is determined that the stranger pay his dues and work off his debt to the clan. Karl is eager only to leave the planet and return home, where his wife is expecting a child. Bera, desperately unhappy among her adoptive clan, first transfers her mothering instincts to the wounded Karl and later develops more complex feelings for him. Ultimately Karl and Bera set out to find a shrine known as Winter Song, a relic of the colony’s murky past that may be the only way Karl can find his way home.

There’s some interesting background detail to the setting: space-age humanity has fractured into warring factions. As previously mentioned there are Radicals – technologically enhanced humans – and Traditionals who eschew such enhancement. There is some fluidity of definition here, illustrated by Karl who considers himself mostly Traditional despite his extensive – to a baseline human – modifications. There are less grey areas when it comes to the use of planets; Traditionals are terraformers who believe in adapting planets to suit human life. Radicals are often more inclined to modify themselves to be able to survive on a planet – geoformers, basically. Then there is a third faction, the Ayes, an incrutable collection of machine intelligences.

It’s a potentially interesting background but unfortunately ends up being little more than a backdrop for the sfnal setting. The philosophical conflict between Traditionals and Radicals does tie in with the plot of the novel (which I shan’t give away as it involves a twist which is one of the novels most entertaining surprises), but beyond that it feels like fluff to make the canvas feel a little larger than it is, and to justify Karl’s outsider status.

The first half of the novel, after Karl comes crashing to Earth, is mostly about establishing the setting of the planet, critters and ecology included, as well as building the relationship between Karl and Bera. Tying into this is an apparent schizophrenic tendency in Karl. At times he’s lucid and self-conscious, but at others that personality disappears and the story shifts to second-person perspective as another personality surfaces with its own desires and motives. This helps keep the first half of the novel reasonably exciting, although most readers will probably guess what’s going on before Karl himself does. Regardless, this shift in perspective is handled well, given that second-person is a comparatively rare and difficult form.

For the second half we shift into pulpy sf adventure territory as Karl and Bera hunt for Winter Song, gaining an unexpected ally along the way (gasp!), with Ragnar and a warband from the village in pursuit. Underpinning this is a steady drip-fed reveal of the planet’s history and how it ties into the aforementioned clashes between human factions and philosophies.

The development of the relationship between Karl and Bera’s is a major part of the book but at times I felt the dialogue they shared was painfully stilted. Bera I can perhaps forgive for this, as she’s little more than a teenager who’s grown up too fast in a harsh world, but Karl is supposedly 90 years old and his alternation between matter-of-fact distantness and occasionally cringeworthy cooing doesn’t really convince. That said, there are only scattered instances of this.

All told Winter Song is a fairly strong novel and one I found a pleasant surprise, especially as it was a freebie. It’s stronger on the world-building and questing than it is the relationships and dialogue, but I’m still interested enough that if Harvey writes a sequel I’ll pick it up.

(One final note unrelated to the novel itself – despite the unspectacular cover art I do quite like the design. It feels fairly modern with book recommendations, “extras” and some bulletpointed elements of the story listed on the back. Kinda snazzy!)

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