Review: Winter (+ Fairest)

Winter weather has struck, and I’ve found an appropriately titled book for the occasion:  This month I read both the final novel in the Lunar Chronicles by Maggie Stiefvater, Winter, as well as the companion novel to the series, Fairest. If you want to check out my thoughts on the first three books, you can follow these links: Cinder, Scarlet, and Cress. Otherwise, find my thoughts on the final volume of the Lunar Chronicles below.

About the book: With Emperor Kaito now on Cinder’s side, the Rampion crew sets out on a winternew mission to thwart Levana. This time, as Queen Levana wages all-out war on Earth in response to the delay of her marriage, it’s an all-or-nothing scheme that brings all of Levana’s enemies together, building their strength in numbers. Princess Winter, a new focus in this novel, also becomes involved in the effort to overthrow Levana. She’s not the sort to condone fighting, but when Levana decides she doesn’t want her beautiful stepdaughter to exist anymore, Winter has little choice but to side with those who want to help her rather than hurt her. Still, though the ragtag group of rebels is growing, can they ever be strong enough to face Levana and all her powerful minions? And even if Levana can be overthrown, how can Cinder be with Kai when they would be leaders of countries thousands of miles apart? How can Thorne be with Cress if she wants to explore Earth but he can’t part with his Rampion? How can Scarlet be with Wolf when he has a chance to reunite with his previous life on Luna, or when he has become so animalistic that he may not be safe company? How can Winter be with Jacin when Levana and her head thaumaturge are so determined to kill them? And what will happen to Luna and Earth if Levana wins supreme control?

I have a lot of things to say about Winter, but let’s start with the things I appreciated most in this novel.

First, we have a great balance of characters and perspectives. The reader is presented with a 3rd person narration that alternates between close focus on eight main characters. The transitions between them are easy to navigate–each section leaving the reader wondering what will come next for that character, but equally eager to move on and find out what’s happening to the others who left us hanging. Almost every chapter ends in a mini cliffhanger that keeps the reader going, but there’s no jarring switches because every character’s story is equally exciting. This is the same format we’ve seen since Scarlet, but in Winter, it finally works perfectly.

Secondly, we have an action-packed plot that keeps moving from start to finish. Something that annoyed me in earlier books was that there seemed to be so much sitting around and reflecting on the situation while the narration seemed to be waiting for something to happen. In this one, there’s hardly a chance for anyone to stand still at all, and that eliminated a lot of my problems with the narration. The plot has always been interesting, but in Winter, we have so much plot that there’s no room for repetitive worries about what might happen.

Thirdly, we have all the romance this series has been waiting for. It bothered me a little that all of the main characters were neatly paired off in relationships where the biggest problem always seemed to be pining during separation, but this book puts true strain on each relationship that makes every victory in love more intense. It’s great that each female character is able to do something important on her own–there may be “princes” involved in each fairy tale story, and sometimes the “princesses” need help, but sometimes it’s the princes that need help, and each female is strong enough to stand on her own. The love stories may be cute in a predictable way, but each individual character is an interesting and capable person; they don’t depend on each other, but they make each other happy. I think that’s a positive way to portray any relationship.

“Act natural? Act natural? When her legs were made of noodles and her heart was about to pound right out of her chest and he’d said that he loved her, at least in a sense. What did it even mean to act natural in the first place? When had she ever in her life known how to act natural?”

And fourthly, my favorite part of Winter is Winter herself. Although the narration remains in third person throughout the series, we now have a close look at a character who’s a little mentally unstable. Winter has refused to use her Lunar gift, which makes her a little crazy. It’s so much fun to read about her life and have to separate what’s real from what’s imagined in her head. She’s an unpredictable character, which is wonderful. Winter is just the princess this series needed to pull everything in the plot together.

But let’s also look at the aspects that didn’t jive.

“Levana had been living with her excuses for a long time.”

Levana felt like a drastically different character to me between Fairest (the companion book about Levana’s past) and the Lunar Chronicles proper. In Winter and the rest of the main novels, Levana seems intentionally malicious, someone who enjoys hurting people for the sake of hurting them, whether physically, emotionally, or mentally. In Fairest, I did not have that impression at all. Although the narrator of Fairest describes an event in Levana’s childhood that could have caused a mental breakdown and the turning of her character from a sweet little girl to an evil one,that was not the impression I was left with. Levana seemed never to hold any remorse or true understanding of the pain she was inflicting on her victims, as though she was born missing the sympathetic gene. She could do hateful things with dire consequences, using flimsy excuses that she seemed to believe whole-heartedly, but she did them because she thought something could be gained for the betterment of Luna. She was often wrong, but she believed she was helping. In the main books of the series, however, including Winter, Levana acts vengefully. If a character displeases her, she lashes out, not for the betterment of Luna but to hurt that character. She doesn’t seem like a character who grew up without an understanding of sympathy, she seems like she enjoys cutting down every enemy, and when those are gone, creating more enemies to cut down. Although Fairest gave some helpful background information on the Lunar royal family tree, the whole book felt largely like a discrepancy. The most significant reveals were also uncovered in Winter, and after finishing both books, I felt that I hadn’t gained anything by reading Fairest at all. But back to Levana:

“No, Levana was a monster, but it wasn’t because of the face she’d kept hidden all these years. Her monstrosities were buried much deeper than that.”

Are they though? Does Levana really even know that what she’s doing is monstrous? Also, there was definitely undue attention to the “monstrosities” of Levana’s face. It really bothered me throughout this series–and especially in Winter where the matter comes to the forefront–that Levana’s ugliness could be her worst flaw. She’s more concerned with being known as a beautiful queen than a good queen, and it seems that everyone who sees her true appearance says or thinks that she’s catastrophically hideous. I know that in the familiar story of Snow White, the evil queen is obsessed with the fact that the mirror claims her stepdaughter is more beautiful, but I think this series takes the queen’s desire to be beautiful in a bad direction. See, it’s Levana’s scars that make her ugly–scars that were inflicted upon her as torture when she was a child. It felt very wrong to me for so many characters to hold her appearance against her when her scars were the result of the same sort of victimization by manipulation that the rest of them all fear from Levana.

I think the revelation of what happened to Levana as a child had the potential to make the queen a very interesting character with more depth, but instead Meyer took only Levana’s appearance into account and made her a victim again, sending the wrong messages to young Lunar Chronicles readers–that beauty can be more important than fairness or kindness, and that it is acceptable to judge someone based on their appearance, no matter what may have caused the disfiguration.  A little vanity would have been understandable and perhaps even excusable. But when Cinder wants to show everyone on Luna what Levana truly looks like to win more people to her own side, although the point may be to demonstrate the extent of Levana’s lies, the idea seems more like a call to raise arms against Levana because of her ugliness. Fighting because you don’t like the way someone looks is, again, not a good message to be sending impressionable readers.

Speaking of bad messages, there were also a few that stemmed from the narration around Jacin’s character. He was often disheartened or outright upset about how things were playing out for him, leaving him cynical and somewhat hopeless, but he gave the reader some really bad lines. Although in context, the narration makes clear to the reader that his opinions are wrong and come from a place of depression, there are a few things he says that I didn’t want to read, ever, in any context. Things like, “Dreams are for people with nothing more important to do.” There was also one that stood out to me about hope being pointless. I don’t know the wordings of these quotes for sure. I didn’t mark them to look back on. That’s my point–whenever I read any book, I mark passages that are inspiring or well-done, quotes I want to remember later. I think this is something many readers do. I don’t want to read things that would ever make me feel bad about dreaming or having hope, and I don’t think those sorts of statements should be in a book like this at all–maybe in any book. So I didn’t mark them as I read, but they stuck with me. I understood Jacin was feeling particularly down on his luck, and I didn’t have a problem with that, but I think the narration expressed it in a bad way.

That’s not to say the narration was all bad, though. Here’s a quote I did like:

“One should never save cake for later when it can be eaten now.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Various aspects of this series have bugged me on and off from the very first book. There was not a single book in this series that I really loved enough to completely overcome my reticence for some of the narrative maneuvers, but obviously I enjoyed them enough to read the entire series. Indeed, Winter was my favorite book of all four. I’m glad that I didn’t quit early, because the series definitely had more to offer than was made apparent in Cinder or Scarlet. I don’t completely understand why this series is so popular, but it certainly has its merits.

What’s Next: I’m currently reading Tom Rob Smith’s Agent 6, the final volume in his Russian Child 44 trilogy. You can find my review of that book here if you’re interested, but since I didn’t create a post about the second book in the series, The Secret Speech, I probably also won’t include one of Agent 6. After that, I intend to read and post about Susie Steiner’s Missing, Presumed, a thriller about a girl who is presumed dead, and the policewoman who’s investigating her case. Also, I’m planning some changes and additions to my blog for the coming year, so although I may not share much for the end of December, there’ll be new excitement in January!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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