Winner of the Gallimard Jeunesse Award
Translated from French by Hildegard Serle
A Winter’s Promise, the first in the Dabos’s Mirror Visitor quartet, was my 2018 Pageturner of the Year. Here’s why. 2 days, 3 sittings, 491 pages devoured with not a post-it note in sight. I was too engrossed to interrupt myself with thoughts on how I was going to review it. I was under the spell of a master-story teller, a spell only the turning of the final page would break.
I was intrigued by the cover before even opening the book with the fantastic construction, that is Citaceleste, a city located on the Pole, one of the 207 arks that fly around the remains of an Earth, destroyed in the Rupture. It is the future home of Orphelia, a shy girl, who lives on Anima, custodian of a small museum of objects, she spends her days “reading”. On touching an object, she is able to read its history. She is also able to pass through mirrors (provided she has previously seen the destination mirror.) She is also extremely clumsy, wears glasses that change colour to fit the prevailing atmosphere and an oversized scarf, with a mind of its own, that acts as her comfort blanket. She is going to need it.
The novel opens with the news of Orphelia’s betrothal to Thorn, the Treasurer of Citaceleste. It is a political arrangement, Orphelia having been chosen by the Doyennes of Anima. It’s a prospect that fills her great-uncle with dread.
Of all the arks, the Pole’s the one with the worst reputation. They have powers there that send you out of your mind! They’re not even a real family – they’re wild packs that tear each other apart. Are you aware of all that’s said about them?”
She’s not, but the arrival of Thorn, his lack of interest in civilities, even diplomatic ones, his obvious contempt for her, her family, the whole of Anima seemingly, does nothing but exacerbate the unease. He immediately whisks her off to the Pole, to the home of his aunt, Berenilde, where she and her chaperone must stay out of sight until the wedding. Why? Because, although living in comfort, they have indeed landed among wild packs that tear each other apart with their power games. And, although Orphelia does not understand how it can be so, her impending marriage is an ace in Thorn’s hand that others seek to remove.
Here be dragons, as they say, though not the mythical beasts we’re familiar with, but Thorn’s clan. Thorn, himself, is a bastard son, and if we think he’s spiky, foreboding and fierce, he’s mellow in comparison with the pure bloods! Trust no-one but my aunt is the only advice he offers Orphelia, before disappearing at length into his official duties. So what is an inquisitive girl to do? Escape at the first opportunity from the captivity at Berenilde’s into the outer world and …. out of the frying pan and into the fire.
As endearing as Orphelia is, her resources are low. She doesn’t have the power to take on the dragons. She cannot simply pass through a mirror to get home. (The distance is too great. Nor would she be welcome.) But, just as her sly intelligence taught bullies in Anima a lesson, by letting them read a bullet and experience the pain of being shot in the stomach for themselves, Thorn and Berenilde will realise, now that she has sussed their endgame, that the days of getting everything they want, just as they want it, are over. Orphelia cuts through the mirages and illusions to forge a few alliances of her own, including one with a shabby, amoral, duplicitous diplomat. Exactly what his motives are remain to be seen, but rest assured, they will be ulterior …
Bring on book two!