Author: Marcus Sedgwick
Length: 262 pages
My star rating: ★ ★
Note: This review is (relatively) spoiler-free. I have included some hidden spoilers in my Goodreads review.
Midwinterblood begins in 2073, when a middle-aged journalist named Eric Seven arrives on an isolated Scandinavian island called Blessed. The islanders grow a rare orchid with powerful healing properties—and rumored to hold the key to immortality itself. When Eric arrives, he finds that time and technology have passed Blessed by. He also feels a powerful connection with a young woman named Merle that he cannot explain. But things soon take an ominous turn when some of Eric’s things are stolen. Though he tries to investigate, he quickly becomes addicted to the island’s special tea and begins forgetting who and where he is and why he is there.
This is ostensibly the plot of the novel—but the problem is that it’s actually composed of seven short stories, all connected by the setting (the island, alternately called Blessed and Blest) and characters (all nominally different) named Eric and Merle. The timeline is linear, though it moves backwards instead of forwards.
I had two main thoughts while reading it: “What?” and “That’s it?”
In short, this disorienting, confused little book makes Deathless look sensible and orderly. Not an easy feat.
It quickly becomes apparent that this is a reincarnation story—which is fine, if not original. But what else is it? Mystery? Horror? Paranormal? Fantasy? Historical fiction? Romance? Though I don’t think any piece of art needs to fit neatly into a box, this novel was all over the place. It raised far more questions than it answered and had virtually no plot—much less genre—to speak of.
This is, in part, because Sedgwick is trying too hard to be profound and literary in his writing. Unlike authors such as Catherynne Valente who do similar things by using overly descriptive language and complex sentence structure, Marcus Sedgwick does the opposite: his language is bare and simplistic, his sentences short, and his prose choppy. Frankly, most of the stories read like rough drafts—or even outlines—rather than a final, polished product.
Some readers raved about the prose and found it poetic, moving, haunting. I did clearly disagree, though it is pretty in places—such as in his initial descriptions of the island, his endless descriptions of the dragon orchid, and in the final story, which was itself a clusterfuck of description and disjointed action.
And this prose, more unsophisticated and condensed than that of most fairy tales, is the only way this could be considered a YA novel. Some of the characters are children or young teenagers, but most are adults. There aren’t many YA themes—or themes at all, honestly—to be found here. The YA label was, presumably, merely a marketing decision.
Most of the characters, even the seven different Erics and Merles, are flat, static, and just uninteresting. Add to that they all have the same voice. I don’t know anything about these two souls even after spending two hundred and seventy pages reading about them. There are almost no compelling characters to be found, and those that do exist (such as Tor) are wasted. Often, the short stories focus on equally dull characters that happen to interact with their time’s incarnations of Eric and Merle, and given how short the novel is, Sedgwick seems to be wasting precious space telling us, for instance, that a character who has four lines of dialogue in one of seven stories is a Goth.
And if I have to read the stupid phrase “Well, so it is” one more time, I’ll scream.
I kept expecting there to be an overarching plot thread, or at least a common theme, to connect all the stories. There wasn’t. (Supposedly this theme is sacrifice, but I’m not buying it.)
To be fair, I did like some of the elements in some of the stories. The vampire story was particularly intriguing—though it felt as random and unfinished as the rest when considering the novel as a whole—and at least had a direct connection to an earlier story.
The whole book reminds me of when, in The Silence of the Lambs, Dr. Lecter asks Clarice if the pattern seems “desperately random.” And here it does, like Sedgwick was trying to arrive at a real point, like he genuinely meant to move or touch or frighten his readers, but tried much too hard and got lost along the way.
There is no order or logic behind the reincarnation—why do three of the seven stories take place in the 20th and 21st centuries when the first Eric and Merle lived in an almost prehistoric time? As with so many others in this book, that question is never answered or even hinted at.
This utter lack of logic wouldn’t have bothered me so badly if not for other recurring plot elements that Sedgwick adds for no apparent reason other than to add mystery and tension to the story. There are a plethora of these. For instance…
Does the dragon orchid really promote longevity, as it appears to? If so, how can it also possess healing properties and induce both memory loss and infertility? And why does it only cause only some people to become forgetful and/or infertile? Why does it only grow on one side of the island? Why have they spurned the modern world? Why is there so little information available about the island in 2073 when, during World War II, soldiers seemed to locate it easily? What secrets is Tor so desperate to keep? Does he know about the reincarnation and, if so, why does he seem determined to keep Eric and Merle apart? How can the husband and wife be reincarnated so randomly—as twins, as mother and son, as total strangers (one of whom isn’t even born on the island), etc.?
There’s also a token homosexual relationship which is tossed in last-minute, never actually explored, that involves changing Eric’s gender (for some reason). That leads to still more questions: Why wouldn’t a male soul be born into a male body—and why bother changing Eric’s gender unless doing so would actually affect the story? Why did this never happen to Merle’s soul?
So much of the “plot” is completely nonsensical.
As other reviewers have said, there’s world-building here, but it’s infuriatingly incomplete.
The worst part is that I didn’t hate this book while I was reading it. I trusted the author to lead me through and bring me to a coherent, satisfactory conclusion. I trusted him to tie up most of his loose ends and to make sense of the tangled mess he’d created.
I placed my trust in the wrong person, because Marcus Sedgwick didn’t do any of those things. I’m sure he thinks he did, but instead he ended the millennia-long story of two flat characters I never had any reason to care about in a sappy and melodramatic fashion.
I lied. This must be YA.
Maybe I’m just missing something. Maybe I’m too dumb to appreciate this book. But I really don’t think so.
Two stars because at least it isn’t another Twilight rip-off, but that’s not saying much.