Winter Rose by Patricia A. McKillip
Published: 1996, Ace
Series: Winter Rose, #1
Genre: Fantasy, Retelling
Source: Library book
I've been hearing praise about McKillip's books for a while, so when I found out that she had written a "Tam Lin" retelling, I was excited to finally be introduced to her works.
By far my favorite aspect of Winter Rose is the language. Beautiful, nostalgic, and searching, it perfectly conveys the greater themes of the novel.
The hard winds sang their way into my dreams again that night. Long, white, insistent fingers of snow brushed against the window glass until I saw the storm out of memory, snow falling endlessly, hiding the moon, the earth, and any footprints in the frozen ground. Come to us, the winds called. Come. And I rose and saw the light from Lynn Hall flickering like a star among the wind-harrowed trees. (134)McKillip's prose is like poetry in motion. I would like to revisit this story (and other ones of hers) someday simply to enjoy the beauty of her language.
Rois is a wonderful protagonist. Almost fey-like herself, Rois cannot sit still but must wander through her town's neighboring woods, collecting herbs and feeling the ground beneath her bare feet. An eccentric protagonist, certainly, Rois is also incredibly devoted to her family and those she loves. Although the complete opposite of her sister Laurel in every possible way, it is Rois' sense of love for her afflicted sister, as well as her desire to learn more about the mother who simply wandered off into the woods to die when she was younger are the two driving points in the novel. Rois' ostensible obsession over the Lynn family's curse can be viewed as little more than Rois trying to form all the discrete pieces into something more understandable.
The depictions of small-town life and the power of curiosity are also quite compelling. The curse on the Lynn descendents not only makes for a great story, but for a long Winter-season obsession. Why has Corbet come back to live at Lynn Hall, his family's own manor? Why is he rebuilding it the exact way it was all those years ago, when his dying grandfather cursed his father? It is so interesting how Corbet's appearance can elicit such strong reactions among the townspeople. And, for Rois, the questions are even more difficult to answer. How is she able to see Corbet's image through the waters of a well in the woods? As much as Rois, Laurel, their father, and Perrin feed into the town's general curiosity of Corbet's returning, they find themselves even more intimately tied to the new tenant of Lynn Hall.
There is a sort of love quadrangle that forms over the course of the novel. Surprisingly, this romance did not bother me, instead giving the reader an intimate understanding of how powerful the Lynn family's curse is. Despite the pervasive sense of hopelessness during the dark days of winter — for Corbet, for Laurel, for the town in general — Rois demonstrates her plucky strength and determination to fight to make things right for everyone that she loves.
Although McKillip does have some references to the "Tam Lin" tale (Lynn Hall, the significance of roses, Rois' role as savior), they are subtle. Unless I had known beforehand that Winter Rose is an acknowledged "Tam Lin" retelling, I may not have made the connection myself. The love quadrangle complicates the plot, as does the fact that Corbet is not the solitary sufferer in a curse, but that the curse is intended for his entire family. And, while there were still some magical elements in the story, I wanted more out of this as a "Tam Lin" retelling. I wanted a better understanding of fairy and mystical powers at work, I wanted a stronger relationship between this novel's Janet and Tam Lin (with the main third party complicating their relationship being the fairy queen, not the sister of our Janet).
My biggest issue with the novel was its pacing. For such a short novel, it took me a while to read. I think this is partially due to the fact that not much action takes place, and what does requires a lot of buildup first. It's a very subtle and contemplative novel. The characters are all haunted by the past to some degree, and in fact the past's influence makes it very difficult for them to embrace the present. A sense of dreamlike wonder and fear pervades the novel, but as a reader I wanted more than that. I wanted to really understand how the malicious fairy presence in the forest really affected people. Readers are given many abstract feelings, but not much knowledge of the concrete reality that is the story. Perhaps that's part of the point, but it was still frustrating in that aspect.
There are also many questions left unanswered by the end. Despite Winter Rose being part of a duology, it reads like a standalone. I'm not sure that all the answers to my questions about Rois' mother or the fairy queen or Tearle Lynn's curse are necessary and I'm not even sure if they are answered in the sequel, Solstice Wood, which seems to be more of a companion novel; they just would have provided a greater sense of closure for me.
With all that in mind, how do I think that Winter Rose fared? I must be honest and say it didn't meet my expectations as a "Tam Lin" retelling. If I can ignore my expectations of a "Tam Lin" retelling and just look at the story as a whole, I do think it's a beautifully and imaginative written story. Just not the story I would have expected.