Khasmin, Princess of Summerlea, finds herself forced into an arranged marriage to Wynter, the King of their enemy country, Wintercraig. Shunned by her family (and abused by her father) for her powerful weather abilities and for her mother’s death after Khasmi's birth, Khasmin has lived a much tougher life than other princesses, requiring her to be independent, to think on her feet, and to idolize the great warriors of her ancestral house. Though her father hopes her marriage to Wynter will be a painful punishment for her daughter--as her brother, the Falcon stole away Wynter’s previous betrothed and plunged their countries into war--it ends up being the best thing that’s ever happened to her.
"For the first time, she was free of the cage of her father’s making, free of his rules and his demands for obedience. She would not willingly step into another. If the Winter King thought to control her, he would find caging the wind an easier task."
I loved Khasmin from the very beginning. She’s sassy, speaks her mind, and never backs down when things get uncomfortable. Plus, she thinks ahead, loves history, challenges herself by trying new things constantly, and keeps an open mind. I hate to admit this, but I was fully prepared to hate Wynter. He doesn’t make the best first impression and I immediately feared he would be just another typical alpha male in a romance novel. Thankfully, I was wrong.
That was the insidious price of the Ice Heart. Each use of its power, no matter how minute, robbed him of some irretrievable portion of his humanity. After three years of war and death, so little of his former self remained, he felt even the tiniest additional loss like a hammer to the heart. He could literally feel himself growing more distant, more unfeeling, more like the dread, soulless monster of legend.
Wynter is more vulnerable than other typical male leads. Having lost every family member dear to him, and his former betrothed and future queen to another man (and of an enemy nation), he drank from the mythical frozen waters to give him deadly and vast powers, infamously known as the Ice Heart. Unfortunately, this causes him to lose more and more of his feelings and humanity as time goes on, which can lead him to treat those around him with a lack of care. However, this lack of care is never physically threatening or domineering, which endeared him to me.
"Love, child. That’s what it’s all about. Wyn is losing the capacity to love—to feel anything. And when all warm emotion is gone, the man we know as Wynter will cease to be. A monster of unimaginable power will inhabit his body—a dark god who was once a man, Rorjak, the Ice King.”
As did his perpetual fear of his losing his humanity and hurting those still dear to him. Wynter lives in fear that he will lose his battle to the Ice Heart, which would allow the Ice King Rojak, and his army filled with troll kings and monstrous wolves with venomous teeth, garms--to get an icy grip on the world once more. Despite this, Khasmin, his bride of Summer keeps trying to thaw his heart, but they have many misunderstandings along the way.
“In a world where folk lived in fear of his wrath, this slender woman stood toe to toe with him during even his foulest moods, taking the worst he threw at her and firing back as good as she got. She was no meek, domesticated lamb of a woman any more than he was a tame or gentle man.”
Even though the book often lacks a lot of subtlety--I mean the king of Wintercraig is literally named Wynter, for God’s sake--with some characters and their machinations blatantly obvious from miles away, I really enjoyed the character development and the budding relationship between Khasmin and Wynter. Though The Winter King is not a slow-burn romance, as I typically prefer, the novel does a great job developing the emotional relationship between the characters over time. Yes, the marriage is consummated right away, as Khasmin’s survival and the truce between the two nations completely depends on the birth of an heir. Normally, I hate when there isn’t a huge build up to the first time characters become intimate, but it shockingly didn’t actually bother me in The Winter King. It seemed more realistic to their political situations. Plus, it’s pretty clear that though the two are immediately attracted to one another, they aren’t yet in love.
“His queen, who had been an outcast in her own home all her life, would not be an outcast in his.”
Instead of most of the novel focusing on the classic “Will they, won’t they,” much of The Winter King is about breaking down emotional walls and misunderstandings between both the husband and wife, their respective homelands, and loyalties. I didn’t mind that the two were intimate right away. To me, the emotional relationship of confronting each other’s loneliness and past traumas was more important and took center stage, even though the physical relationship was present from the very beginning. In this way, there are the steamy scenes for pure romance fans, and the focus on emotional issues for the love story fans. And there’s also just enough fantasy to whet the appetite.
Author C.L. WIlson also does a great job showing us the differences between Wintercraig and Summerlea. The country of Wintercraig is pretty well-developed, with its own system of lore surrounding the goddess Wyrn, her brother Throgyll, and the perpetual fear of the return of Wyrn’s husband and his undead ice army, Rojak. Though I didn’t know all the details of where the country was situated and whatnot, we are told about about the differences of customs from that of Summerlea’s, the weather, and the creatures that live in the woods. While not as much time is focused on the details of world-building--and virtually none is spent on explaining the magical systems and why Khasmin can summon storms--as in a typical high fantasy novel, it is enough for the purposes of this story.
And let’s face it, we’re primarily reading this for the romance, with a backdrop of fantasy, and the book does a fantastic job at the romance. Though the world-building and side characters aren’t as nuanced as the relationship of Khasmin and Wynter, I really enjoyed The Winter King. Fans of A Promise of Fire will certainly love this book. I will be checking out the author’s other novels in the future.
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