French YA Fantasy – Vol 1 of 4: Can’t wait for Vol 2!

A Winter’s Promise: Vol 1 of the Mirror Visitor Quartet by Christelle Dabos

Translated by Hildegarde Serle

Publishing YA books is a bit of a departure for Europa Editions, but they’ve taken on the English translation of this French bestseller, and I loved all 492 pages of this first volume. Couldn’t put it down, and I desperately want to read the following books. I really hope they find a big audience for this series, (the super cover design by Emanuele Ragnisco will help). I don’t read many fantasy novels these days, but couldn’t resist this one in translation.

Dabos has set her novel in a world that has been split apart in the Rupture.  It could be our world, or another – it doesn’t matter. But the ‘fragment’ of a preface describes an angry God who ‘smashed the world to pieces.’  The pieces of the world float around the core as celestial islands – ‘arks’.  Each ark is linked to the spirit of an ancestor, an immortal who presides over their island. The inhabitants of each ark have developed distinct powers, although most don’t manifest them very strongly.  We start on the Anima ark.  Anima has a very Mittel-European feel, think of any French old town, from Strasbourg to Angers and you’ll get the feel for this ark – where many of us would instantly feel at home. It’s time to meet our heroine… who arrives through a mirror into the Family Archives where her great-uncle looks after all the historic artefacts of the Anima ark.

Ophelia is not a typical young woman. She’s gawky, clumsy – always breaking things. She doesn’t really care much what she looks like and is constantly pushing her glasses, which change colour frequently, up her nose. She is always seen wearing a long scarf which also has a life of its own. On Anima, objects can come to life in their way, and the inhabitants’ talents are all related to handling objects: Ophelia’s great-uncle mends things, her aunt can repair paper. Ophelia has one of the strongest talents – when she handles an object, she knows its entire history, all its owners and other handlers.  She can also travel through mirrors – although this is distance limited and she has to have seen the destination mirror before.

Ophelia breaks the news to her great-uncle that she is to be married – not to a local man though, the Doyennes of Anima have arranged a diplomatic marriage for her with a man from the Pole. Her great-uncle is aghast!

“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?”

Ophelia, bless her, is accepting of her fate, even the fact that she will have to move to the Pole ark. The arrangements are made and she is to travel with her Aunt Rosaline as chaperone. Her fiancé Thorn comes to collect her.  What is he like?

In two glances, however, she got an impression of his face, and what she had glimpsed made her flesh creep. Pale eyes, sharp nose, light hair, scar across temple, the whole profile was full of disdain. Disdain for her and her whole family.

What is more, the nature of the rivalries between the families of Pole soon becomes clear. Thorn, who is the Treasurer of the ark, is a bastard (in the lineage sense!) and is barely tolerated by factions of his ark and family.  It is a big coup for him to land a fiancée like Ophelia, but she must be kept in secret until the wedding takes place. Aunt Rosaline is to act as a companion to Thorn’s relative Berenilde, with Ophelia as maidservant.

It’s all very fishy. Although Berenilde is nice enough to them, there are obviously plans to which Ophelia isn’t privy, and Thorn isn’t telling.  She wonders why she was chosen – this will become clear later, but until then we have several hundred pages of adventure as Ophelia gets to know about her future home ark, meets some of its characters and discovers the powers of Pole’s inhabitants. It’s a good thing that Ophelia possesses a sharp brain, for as she begins to piece together the politics of the situation she has landed in, she will need all her wits to survive and stand her ground and not just be a pawn in their games.

This novel reminded me very much of the feudal politics between the Atreides and Harkonnens in Frank Herbert’s classic Dune, but set in a more Game of Thrones type setting. Being written for a slightly younger audience, it is far less sexy than GoT, and there are no dragons (yet?).   I found the powers of the different arks and how they manifest in their peoples fascinating, bringing a psychological element with them.  The mostly non-relationship building between Ophelia and Thorn was brilliantly conceived and full of ups and downs as you may expect, especially as he is hiding so much from her. Ophelia is a totally loveable heroine, and we are with her all the way through just under 500 pages of this wonderful adventure of which this is just the start.

Dabos’s writing in Serle’s translation is breezy, full of references to classics and myth – there’s a ‘Pantagruelian banquet’, Shakespearean names abound as we’ve seen already, as well as ones like Artemis, Freya, Adonis and more. All contribute towards making this an fabulous adventure with enough complexity to get your teeth into for grown-up Harry Potter fans as well as teens. I really can’t wait to get my hands on volume two. I’m giving it 10/10 I loved it so much. (10/10)

Source: Review copy – Thank you!

Christelle Dabos, trans Hildegarde Serle, A Winter’s Promise: The Mirror Visitor Book 1 (Europa editions, Sept 2018) Hardback, 468 pages.

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9 thoughts on “French YA Fantasy – Vol 1 of 4: Can’t wait for Vol 2!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      This book has great crossover appeal – intelligently written and plotted. Vol 2 is out in April, I gather. Can’t wait.

  1. helen says:

    Oooh, Annabel, your review is so enticing I’ve just ordered a copy! Can’t wait for half term and time to immerse myself in it. And thank you because I should never have come across it were it not for you.

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