A Delightful Winter Read
I picked up an autographed copy of this book at an author signing event at BookPeople of Moscow. It can be a little frightening to try a new author, but Christian Cohen did not disappoint. Being a person who also dislikes having other people’s winter holidays thrust upon me, I found the main character’s resistance to winter festivities not only relatable, but a delightfully refreshing character trait.
Being an impoverished fifteen-year-old kitchen maid is tough. Survival is even more difficult when the entire village believes your family has been cursed. Yet, this is Cora Nikolson’s lot in life. And she knows exactly where the blame lays, with the Winter King. The God cursed her family, took her father’s life, and brought them to the brink of starvation. Cora has no love for God, King, or country. She despises religion and the Aldormany who carry out the Winter King’s cruel edicts.
After her mother loses her position as head cook, Cora takes on additional work as a housemaid, hoping the extra wages will keep her family from starving. While dusting shelves in the library, she overhears a conversation between the Master House Steward and the High Aldorman. They are discussing a book containing secrets regarding the Winter King. Despite repeated attempts, they have been unable to destroy the book and it is imperative that no one in the village learns about its existence.
The secret book would enable Cora to overthrow the Winter King and the Aldormancy. There are only two problems: she doesn’t know where the book is and she doesn’t know how to read. If there is one thing she dose know, it’s that powerful people know how to read. To overthrow them, she must learn.
As winter tightens its grip on the village, Cora simultaneously works as kitchen maid and housemaid, teaches herself to read, and searches for the book. When food stores run low, the winter cough infects the village, claiming many lives, and forcing Cora to play nursemaid to her ailing family members as well. To stave off the illness the Aldormancy prescribes additional tithes, offerings, and prayer. None of it works.
After her brother dies, his ghost shows Cora the way to the book, which not only contains secrets about the Winter King, but contains an herbal cure for the winter cough. When the townspeople learn that the Aldormany kept the cure from them, they confront the Aldormen, redistribute the Aldormen’s wealth to the poor, and establish a new religious order.
One of the few points that left me scratching my head was the word elk. In Europe, moose are called “elk” and the European red deer is considered the same species as North America’s elk. Since no description was given, I had no idea what was being hunted/sacrificed. Also, the author has Cora working with yams and squash, neither of which are native to Europe. Given that some of the people in the village can read, but they have not yet been converted to Christianity, I’m guessing the setting is somewhere in the 900s to 1300s CE. Consequently, northern European kitchens would not have access to either food, but the target audience isn’t likely to know that. The only middle-grade hiccup I found was use of the word skyr (a yogurt-like dairy product), which probably isn’t in the lexicon of your average twelve-year-old.
Overall, the book was a quick read; I finished it in just two days. The story is gripping and the easy to read prose makes this a great book for middle grades and beyond. I am happy to recommend this book to other readers, especially now, in the depths of winter.