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The Winter Duke

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An enchanted tale of intrigue where a duke's daughter is the only survivor of a magical curse.

When Ekata's brother is finally named heir, there will be nothing to keep her at home in Kylma Above with her murderous family. Not her books or science experiments, not her family's icy castle atop a frozen lake, not even the tantalizingly close Kylma Below, a mesmerizing underwater kingdom that provides her family with magic. But just as escape is within reach, her parents and twelve siblings fall under a strange sleeping sickness.

In the space of a single night, Ekata inherits the title of duke, her brother's warrior bride, and ever-encroaching challengers from without—and within—her own ministry. Nothing has prepared Ekata for diplomacy, for war, for love...or for a crown she has never wanted. If Kylma Above is to survive, Ekata must seize her family's power. And if Ekata is to survive, she must quickly decide how she will wield it.

Part Sleeping Beauty, part Anastasia, with a thrilling political mystery, The Winter Duke is a spellbinding story about choosing what's right in the face of danger.

432 pages, Hardcover

First published March 3, 2020

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About the author

Claire Eliza Bartlett

3 books391 followers
Claire Bartlett lives in an enchanted forest apartment in Copenhagen with too many board games and too few cats.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 548 reviews
June 28, 2020

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Ever since I finished Holly Black's The Folk of the Air series, I've been dying to get my hands on other mature YA fantasy books that capture that same breathless atmosphere of sensuality, back-stabbing, and court intrigue. So many authors try for this vibe, but miss-- hard-- because they either aren't good enough writers to fully sell the worlds they're building, or because they try to dumb everything down to be inoffensive and uncontroversial as possible, leading to books that feel pandering and sanitized.

I received an ARC of Bartlett's other book, WE RULE THE NIGHT, earlier this year, which was an amazing steampunk fantasy story about female fighter pilots in the midst of a war. Where WE RULE THE NIGHT was a book about female hot-heads and fiery blazes, THE WINTER DUKE is all ice. Set in a fantasy world split into two major zones-- Kylma Above and Kylma Below-- the heroine, Ekata, lives with her cut-throat family in a palace made of ice where it's always winter.

Everything goes terribly wrong on the evening of her brother's "brideshow," the ceremony where he chooses his future wife. Ekata's whole family is struck by a mysterious sleeping sickness, leaving her in charge of the family's duchy. Ekata is considered the bookish, weak one in her family and is ill-equipped to handle being the Grand Duke, or all of the people attempting to manipulate and use her. In order to escape marriage to one such odious person, Ekata elopes with one of her brother's would be brides, a warrior from a lesser kingdom named Inkar, and with her new wife and a small circle of trusted advisors, Ekata tries to navigate not just her new responsibilities but also figure out who hurt her family-- and whether she might be next-- while also trying to keep her entire kingdom from falling into chaos, anarchy, or upheaval.

So, yeah, it's a trip.

There was so much about this book that I loved so much. First, obviously, the world-building. Kylma Above is so cold and inhospitable, and so are the people who live in it. The ice roses and the hilarious dishes (pickled shark!) really added so much depth to the environment, and allows you, the reader, to become fully immersed. I also really loved Kylma Below, which is a water world home to magic and mermaids and beasts of the deep. I kind of pictured it as being a cross between the Aquas level from Starfox 64 (amazing video game if you haven't played it) and Holly Black's Undersea. It was so good.

Second, the romance between Inkar and Ekata. This is an F/F fantasy novel with an arranged marriage, slow-burn romance and that is basically my favorite thing ever. I talked about my sincere love for that trope in another recent review of a fantasy novel-- but, again, not a lot of authors can carry that off because it requires a really solid understanding of characterization. Bartlett did such an amazing job and it was great to see these two girls slowly begin to relax around one another and find intimacy in a kingdom that saw such closeness as weakness.

Third, the plotting was really good. When you think about it, it's kind of like a challenge-for-the-crown trope meets a grandiose parlor-murder-mystery trope. It works really well. I liked seeing Ekata go through all of her challenges to hold on to her title while also trying to solve the greater mystery. In the beginning she was so uncertain and awkward in her role, and even though she didn't exactly become Cersei Lannister by the end of the book, it was amazing to see her grow into her confidence and apply her knowledge to finding out who the evil-doers were, while also getting better at her job.

I also really appreciated a world where LGBT+ people are fully incorporated and depicted as being the norm. The "Duke" title is unisex and does not change depending on who inherits. The brideshows include men and women and it seems that Ekata's brother likes both, whereas she seems to prefer women. There's a main character who is non-binary, and no homophobic or misogynistic slurs are hurled around; this is a society that is dark and cut-throat but doesn't embrace the usual misogynistic and sexist pseudo-Medieval setting that so many popular fantasy novels are partial to.

If I had one qualm, it was that the ending was a tiny bit disappointing for me. But just a tiny bit.

Claire Eliza Bartlett is fast becoming one of my all-time favorite authors. Both her books have wrested five stars from me and I'm notoriously stingy with them. I hope she writes more fantasy novels, because she's incredibly good at them, and while I roll my eyes at the need for authors to turn all of their books into series, both of her novels are standalones and I desperately wish they were not, so there's that. I can't wait to see what else she writes and will be crossing my fingers for more court intrigue and kick-butt female protagonists, because I think we can all agree we need more of those.

Also, that cover is DELICIOUS. I want to eat it.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!   

4.5 to 5 stars
Profile Image for Riley.
424 reviews20.8k followers
June 11, 2020

- the world was really unique: it was divided between the Above (an ice palace in an almost uninhabitable frozen world) and the Below (an underwater kingdom with mermaids and monsters)
- there was zero heteronormativity: all the titles were gender neutral and being queer was never questioned
- the romance. the ROMANCE. sapphic excellence

- the villain was basically a mustache twirling caricature and the main character spent more pages talking to him than she did the love interest. i had zero interest in this man
- the magic was confusing. i liked the idea of there being a magical plague but i never fully understood how it worked
- the plot didn’t really get interesting until way over halfway which is annoying considering this is a standalone so as soon as the book got good it ended
Profile Image for Silvia .
635 reviews1,387 followers
Shelved as 'dnf'
March 16, 2020
DNF @ 15%

I'm sorry I just can't do it lol I don't like the MC or anyone else for that matter, I just can't bring myself to continue

"lesbian political fantasy on ice" sure is a combination of words that I never knew I needed!!!
Profile Image for Acqua.
536 reviews188 followers
March 28, 2020
I'm giving this lesbian political fantasy on ice 2.5 stars, but don't let my rating mislead you:

If you like plot-driven books, not in the sense of "fast-paced" (this isn't) but meaning that you like complex and unpredictable political intrigue while character development can come second (as in, the characters are well-built, but the character arc moves at a... glacial pace), you'll love this book.
If you like character-driven books and the most important part of political intrigue for you isn't so much the politics but the way they influence deep, well-developed interpersonal relationships, or the way circumstances strain people and force them to reexamine their outlook and loyalties, this won't do much for you. The main character doesn't begin doing these things until 75% in.

This is a good book. I can't understate how much one part of the final twist (there are so many twists, and yet they all make sense) took me by surprise, and YA fantasy hasn't managed to do that in years. I also know that I would never have finished it had I not started skimming, or if it hadn't been an audiobook.

The Winter Duke has an incredibly satisfying ending after all the frustrating events I had to read about, and the F/F romance was sweet, realistic, and just a treasure overall. Inkar was my favorite character, and it's a shame that for plot reason we didn't get much of her until the end.
I also have good things to say about the atmosphere, since this book is set in an ice castle, one standing over a moat hiding a magical underwater city below, and that's just an amazing setting to explore. So is the idea of so many things being powered by magic when the characters' don't truly understand the forces at play.

It only failed in what I realize is the most important thing for me - the characters, and especially the main character, who was really flawed and had sensible reasons for doing what she did (of course at first she thought ruling meant being ruthless, seeing how her family was; she's a victim perpetuating the cycle) but kept not learning from her mistakes, over and over and over, almost only because it was necessary for her to be dense for the plot to move forward.
I had to spend more than half of this book reading the same scenes with the same dynamic: Ekata tries to keep Inkar away, tries to rule without thinking of the consequences first and alienates people in the process, her prime minister scolds her, she keeps trying to wake up her father even when it's obvious that would be the worst move, and tries to fend off Sigis' advances without success.

That was the other problem, apart from how repetitive this dynamic was - I constantly had to read about skeevy Sigis, and I was so tired of that. Sigis this, Sigis that, Sigis invades Ekata's personal space, Sigis creeps her out, Sigis threatens her and her friends and is almost so efficient he felt like a villain sue at times (though in the end I didn't think he was one), Sigis gets more lines than the actual love interest (why). He isn't an interesting character, he was always saying the same things, and I spent most of this book feeling bored and annoyed until I started skimming his scenes: they were unnecessary enough that I still understood everything. While this is not a Beauty and the Beast retelling at all, it's the equivalent of a Beauty and the Beast retelling that dedicates no time to the Beast and has instead the main character talk with Gaston for most of the book. Why would I want to read that?
Profile Image for Dannii Elle.
2,012 reviews1,404 followers
January 28, 2021
Ekata is one of thirteen siblings and distant heir to the throne. She does not long for this powerful seat like the rest of her family and dreams of dissections, anatomy, and laboratory experiments instead. Her dreams are to escape the icy confines of their castle home and attend university to further her studies and her passions. This becomes impossible when, one morning, she becomes the only member of her family to awaken. Every other member is held under a magical curse none can break. Ekata is the last remnant of her family's name and now she now must rule, no matter how unwelcome the prospect to her people, her council, and herself.

I adored how this initially used many well-known fairy tale plot devices and combined them into something entirely new. The cursed family reminded me of Sleeping Beauty, only here the princess is the only soul awake and left to save herself. I also wondered if the roses, which adorn the front cover, overrun the castle grounds, and feature throughout the text, referenced the rose from Beauty and the Beast. That single rose becomes increasingly wilted as the Beast's curse neared its end. These roses react to the ruling family's predicament in a similar way, here.

I also appreciated the majestic beauty of the icy setting and the exploration into just how the magic that allowed for its longevity worked. Bartlett explored the icy climate with a deft pen, which allowed me to feel as though it permeated my own environment, whilst reading about it.

What failed to appeal to me in quite the same way as these aspects was the plot trajectory. I was intrigued by the mystery and longed to learn more about the throne politics. Whilst both remained the primary focus, there were far too many pages dedicated to Etaka's worry and inability to come to a conclusion than there was in attempts to overcome them and move forwards. It felt like a vast central section of the book featured no forward plot progression and whilst the politics were still of interest, I became more interested in other aspects I wished would overtake this focus, when so little was achieved by it. The trials that featured were one such inclusion I would have liked to have seen an increased spotlight on.

I heartily wish I had enjoyed this sapphic fantasy more, but did appreciate how the romance never overtook the political focus and how the atmospheric qualities remained throughout.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an hones review. Thank you to the author, Claire Eliza Bartlett, and the publisher, Titan Books, for this opportunity.
Profile Image for Sherwood Smith.
Author 156 books37.5k followers
February 5, 2020
I actually finished this a while back, but my desk time bottlenecked. Catching up with reviewing now, I can think back and recollect so many stunning images from this book, which I devoured over a few days. It has stayed with me all this time.

That cover really conveys a sense of the broody, cold beauty of the story. Bartlett's worldbuilding is trenchantly magnificent (oh those frozen roses!), and strong characterization contrasts the complexity of the world.

Teenage Ekata is the only one awake after a mysterious, clearly magical, illness strikes down the rest of her huge, obnoxiously (and lethally) competitive family. Her father, the grand duke, is also laid low, and Ekata must step up. But nobody, including her, thinks she's strong enough to hold the government. She tries her best to be her father: hard, heartless, brutal when necessary, uttering threats as her own life is threatened. Carrying them out to prove she's not all bark and no bite. But the emotional cost is exponential.

Meanwhile events must go on as scheduled to convey a semblance of normalcy, including a bride viewing, which had initially been scheduled for Ekata's older brother, the putative heir. I was interested in this choice of words, bride, as both males and females can be considered. Turns out that word choice isn't examined, but the story is so involving I never really noticed that once events began to accelerate.

Ekata chooses Inkar, a woman from another land whose personality is a contrast to Ekata's mood-swinging desperation. Watching these two slowly get to know one another, and to trust, is one of the many pleasures of this book.

Politics abound, as do assassination attempts, and don't forget the magic. Kylma Above is the land Ekata is trying to rule. Kylma Below is in a sense a mirror land undersea, where the magic Ekata's family depends on originates. Ekata has to discover the source of the magic, along with holding onto her throne. And her life.

Bartlett does a terrific job with a teenager who is smart, but knows she's way out of her depth. Meanwhile there is the Gaston-like handsome suitor who is after her (and her kingdom) and politicians who want to do away with royalty entirely, and . . . and . . . and!

The pacing rips along until the end, leaving me wondering what magic Bartlett will create next. Brava!

Copy provided by publisher
Profile Image for laurel [the suspected bibliophile].
1,368 reviews376 followers
May 29, 2020
Ekata is this close to freedom from her murderous family—once her brother is named heir and betrothed to some sucker of a southerner, she'll be fast on her way to the university and her dream of higher knowledge. But on the night of her brother's betrothal, her entire family is pulled under a mysterious curse, and Ekata is named the Duke of Kylma Above. Set upon by snooty courtiers, pushy advisors, an angry prince and the threat of war, Ekata is beset. Can she survive the week—can she pass the duchal challenges, wake her family and live through this new hell?

3.5 stars, rounded down.

Welp, this had a great hook, intriguing concept and fascinating world, but the execution was missing something.

I couldn't quite put my finger on what the hell was my damage with this book, but I felt entirely disconnected the entire way through. I had a similar feeling, but not to this extent, with Bartlett's debut, We Rule the Night, but there was something that amplified my disconnect from the storyline in general and Ekata in particular.

Perhaps it was the overwhelming urge to smack this pompous child upside the head and snap, "Get your head out of your ass!"

For someone who hated and despised her father—mainly for his general neglect of her and tyrannical rule—she sure emulated everything about him. It was weird how quickly she began grasping for power and making decisions in a bubble, despite all of the advisors who literally wanted what was best for the duchy (for the most part). Granted, who had her best interests at heart (none of them, for valid reason), their own interests, or the interests of the duchy, was definitely in heavy consideration.

There is a lot of politicking in this story, which is fine, save the fact that it was built upon haphazard world-building that was hinted at but never really and truly expanded upon. Like the magic. The magic system and economics of the magic were baffling. And the world of Kylma Below was fascinating, but ultimately what was one of the most fantastic parts of the story was again...missing something.

I think this book's biggest faults was that it tried to do too much, and didn't take the time to build upon itself. Instead of taking the time to establish the world a little more, sink deeper into Ekata's head (I take that back—there's a lot of time in her head—but give her a slightly higher level of political acumen because her lack of foresight and knowledge of who literally anyone was was criminal) to get something beyond her angst over...I don't even know what, the storyline bounced from the mystery of Ekata's family's tragedy, accusations over Ekata being the one to do it, who to trust, Kylma Below, the evil prince and his pushy come-ons, and an underdeveloped romance.

Anywho, Ekata did have a sharp learning curve (and many flaws), and slowly (so slowly) began to realize that being a ruler didn't mean being ruthless or smashing your authority down every time you felt threatened or glittery, intimidating clothes—it meant soft skills. Communication, trust, inspiration. A vision. She got better, but it took so long.

I wasn't the biggest fan of the romance, which was more of a situational positioning than actual romance, although it developed further into something real. I did like how the romance turned out at the end, which was a refreshing change from much of YA endings.

Overall, this was a little messy, and had a lot of promise that it didn't quite manage to live up to.
March 9, 2020
Disclaimer: I voluntarily read and reviewed an advanced copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own. Thank you to Fantastic Flying Book Club, Netgalley, and Little, Brown Books for Young Readers for this free copy. All quotes in this review are taken from the Advanced Reader Copy and may change in final publication.

Okay this book? Wow. It was right about making me intrigued with that plot. There was so much in this book that I really liked, from our MC to the plot to the some of the little nuiances that you could see from the author.

Wow, I don’t think I’ve seen a book like this before, but it was absolutely great. I’m so curious to see how the audiobook is because I like being able to go back to ARCs I read after they are published and either reading them again or listening to them for the first time. It’s really just a whole different experience to me honestly.

Oh and did I mention that the whole trying to kill each other thing was freaking an amazing way for me to get hooked at the very beginning? Seriously, I know the synopsis mentioned Ekata’s murderous family but like… I wasn’t thinking that they were trying to kill each other?!

My favorite tutor said that other people’s siblings were noisy, argumentative telltales. My siblings tried to murder one another.

Profile Image for charlotte,.
3,049 reviews806 followers
October 12, 2020
“I do not want promises,” she said in a rich, sleepy voice. “I will not give them, and I will not take them.”

Actual rating 2.5

On my blog.

Rep: lesbian mc and li, bi side character, nonbinary side characters

Galley provided by publisher

In a way, I didn’t expect to love this book, so I suppose this rating isn’t hugely surprising. I have struggled with YA fantasies this year, although granted a lot because they were opening books in a series, so I went into this with my expectations appropriately lowered.

Before I get into just why this book didn’t work for me, I just want to note, there was nothing bad about it. It was a good, solid book. If you like YA fantasy, if you like sapphic YA fantasy, this will be perfect for you. Everything I have to say is stuff that didn’t work solely for me, and therefore made the book really only okay. So honestly, your best bet is to just scroll past this review and carry on with your day.

That being said, here’s why I didn’t get along with it.

It positions itself as a political mystery fantasy, so I thought, great, it’s gonna be good. Only. Only, it being YA, it doesn’t have nearly the depth and engrossingness of the politics that I was looking for. That’s not to say YA invariably doesn’t (The King of Attolia does this excellently, although I will admit it’s moot whether you can classify that YA, as does Descendant of the Crane), but I often find that there’s a shallowness to it that there isn’t in adult. And that’s fine in some cases! It wasn’t here, for me.

And because it didn’t have that depth, really the plot ended up feeling somewhat flimsy. The concept was so good, but the execution wasn’t there. At 72%, I stopped for a moment, and thought that actually I couldn’t recall anything of note that Ekata had done in the past 300 pages. She had done very little actual investigating, complained a fair bit, arrested some people on dubious hunches and not much else. And if I’m promised a “thrilling political mystery”, I actually want to be thrilled. Not cured of insomnia.

What would have worked better for me, I think, would be if Ekata had been forced to work together with her wife, to properly investigate what was going on, because she genuinely couldn’t trust anyone (rather than this “she can’t trust anyone” but actually she does and they’re pretty tame when it comes to potential betrayals). Because that would then satisfy the development of the plot and that of the romance (more of which in a second). As it was, I just felt like the plot carried Ekata along with it. And to rub salt in that wound, the ending showed just how good it could have been all along.

So back to the wife. There doesn’t feel nearly enough development of that potential romance for me to root for it. Inkar is the saving grace of the book, and I loved her, but I never felt like I needed her and Ekata to be together. This is what I mean when I say forcing them to work together would have developed that for me. Instead, it’s more like they’re co-existing, until, for no discernible reason, Inkar starts helping Ekata (but only barely).

The final point, which is probably the most personal of them all, is that I just don’t get along with fantasies which have some dickhead guy trying to overpower and/or take the throne off a woman because it’s somehow his right. I don’t know what it is. I think I just get so overwhelmed with rage at him that I can’t properly engage with the plot. All I want is for him to get fully and completely humiliated (which never happens exactly how I want anyway). As in. Right then and there.

But, despite all this, I would still recommend this book if you looked at it and thought, yeah I might enjoy that. Everything I’ve said here applies primarily to me, so don’t let this review put you off this book. Especially since you’ll likely enjoy it more than me.
Profile Image for Vee_Bookish.
1,273 reviews280 followers
December 18, 2020
[ARC Provided by NetGalley, my review is unbiased]
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📗 This fantasy novel is basically my least favourite genre, Court Politics, and the only thing barely saving it was the lesbian romance, of which I shipped heavily and loved every moment of. The rest of the story was a somewhat confusing mess with very little world building, which is a shame because there was hints of something greater.

📕 The LGBT rep was so good, with lesbian, sapphic and non-binary characters. The non-binary characters did not come with a paragraph explanation of what non-binary is, they just existed, and that was so good to see. On top of this, it's not a big deal in Ekata's Kingdom that she chooses a wife rather than a husband, her being a lesbian is just accepted.

📘 While the Russian-Inspired Kingdom that lives literally on a sheet of ice thanks to magic - with a watery Kingdom below to keep happy - is fascinating, the fact that we never left this place quickly became suffocating. I wanted to see Inkar's homeland, Ekata's often-mentioned University. While the story is wrapped up, I would read another book to see these places.

📙 One massive problem I had with the story was that I was slightly confused. The advisors to the Grand Duke, aka Ekata, were quite frankly some of the most insufferable, irritating people I've ever had to read about but they all kinda blended together to the point where I couldn't work out who was who, like a mass of annoying wasps. I was staunchly cheering whenever there was even a hint she might execute one.

📒 Overall, this was good enough to keep me reading, but suffered from multiple problems - difficult to remember characters, characters like Ekata's family who left the story way before their character was developed fully and a lack of world building. But Ekata's strong-willed character and her romance with Ikata really made me wish for a sequel.
Profile Image for Ellie.
573 reviews2,085 followers
October 11, 2020
full review to come! but I loved the worldbuilding in this one - a magical kingdom of ice lying upon an underwater kingdom full of magic? very cool.

thank you to the publishers for gifting me a review copy in exchange for an honest review! <3
Profile Image for Sya Barlez.
129 reviews10 followers
November 9, 2021
I’m tired seeing stories where LGBT relationships have been inserted just for the sake of political correctness and diverse representation. It feels forced, it feels fake. That’s the reason I so rarely read books that are touted as having LGBT + representation at their core. The author just tries too hard, the relationships just become too predictable and too stale.
I’m taking no names but you all know when it happens – there are plenty of examples.

Which is why I was shocked by The Winter Duke by Claire Eliza Bartlett.

"She tasted like warmth and sun and promises, like the South, like freedom. She tasted like someone who kissed me because she wanted to."

There’s nothing in the female couple’s relationship that makes you feel like the author is trying really hard to normalize it and to come across as a champion of sexual diversity.

Perhaps that’s because the relationship is so entrenched in the basic plot of the story: Main character Ekata, a duke’s daughter, is at the cusp of leaving her home to study at a university, but her entire family falls under a sleeping curse, and Ekata has no option but to become the duke in her father and brother’s absence – and to pick a bride from all the candidates who were here to marry her brother. Oops.

I love how the author sets up the romance and ties it into the plot. There’s Ekata, there’s Inkar (the love interest), and there’s Sigil, the greedy, villainous character who is trying to marry Ekata for political reasons. The romantic chafes against the political in this thrilling, atmospheric YA fantasy (which, great news for those who don’t love long series, is actually a standalone book – which is so rare these days, right? Especially in the YA space).

Rating: 4/5 stars. I highly recommend this amazing title for everyone who likes a good mixture of the fantastical, the political, and the romantic.

The only reason I’m giving it four stars is that the plot could have been a bit more complicated. The big reveal toward the end (that happens during the last trial) was something I had already imagined early on. Also, the second big reveal about a specific character? I had not imagined it, but it could have been woven more deeply into the story. Other than those plot bits, this book is amazing.

Other miscellaneous things I loved:

— Can we just pause for a second to acknowledge that Ekata and Inkar are probably two of the loveliest names in the literary world? Especially Inkar, which sounds so unique and weird – it’s probably the “Ink” that that sounds so weird and charming.

— The trial Below (or whatever it was called) reminded me SO MUCH of the water trial in the Triwizard Tournament in Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire!

— The character arc: The story takes place over the course of a few days, the author portrays Ekata’s inner monologue with such powerful clarity that you can’t help feeling the character grow through the pages of the book. Ekata keeps repeating in her head the do’s and don’ts of being a duke, almost like affirmations. It’s refreshing to read about a character who is genuinely trying to change their mindset within a story. My self-help, non-fiction side loved this aspect.

— At one point Ekata asks the Prime Minister, who is pressuring her to marry Sigis, to marry that jerk himself! Well, I think she didn’t really voice that thought, but it was fun to read anyway.

Talking of fun things to read, Ekata’s humor is another huge selling point of this book: It’s YA in nature, but not the forced kind of YA where an adult author is trying to write from the POV of a younger protagonist but they just end up over-doing it.

I don’t want to read stories where I can see the author working on the page; I want to be immersed in the realism of the story to the point that the author and the real world – so fraught with the pressure to shove diversity into every story – both just disappear. That’s what a great book does. And that’s what The Winter Duke did for me.

I hope it does that for you. Happy reading!

"We fell asleep with our foreheads touching, with our breath aligned, while the moon shone full and the winter roses furled into tight buds over my window."
Profile Image for OutlawPoet.
1,184 reviews70 followers
February 3, 2020

Okay, at its heart, this is kind of basic YA. Our main character is THE ONE and she switches from boring to bold at the drop of a hat. I didn’t really get the geography of our world. (No spoilers but the identity of the folks from Below was…a strange choice) and didn’t understand how the kingdoms (dukedoms?) worked in this world or why…well, why anything at all.

I loved, loved, loved our main character’s wife. In fact, I found myself thinking that the book would be kind of amazing written from her point of view. She had so much fire!

And the romance is very sweet.

BUT (and I use all caps for a reason), what the author does with her characters when it comes to sexuality and gender is inspired. You see, she gives us a world where people don’t pay any attention to gender when it comes to love. Loving a person of the same gender – or even a political marriage with the same gender – isn’t a shock or a shame or anything but…normal. Our author also gives us non-binary characters who are just characters. No calling special attention to them.

This is a standard trope-y YA book with characters who happen to be gay or non-binary in a world where it’s not only accepted, but just everyday. There’s no coming of age. No heavy hearts about it. No discrimination. And it’s awesome. We need more books like this. There’s a ton of trauma in this book – and none of it has to do with sexuality.

Breaking down my rating:

5 Stars for doing something so needed in the book world and doing it so effortlessly.
3 Stars for trope-y YA – regardless of gender/sexuality of the characters.
4 Stars in total.

I am glad I read it.
Profile Image for Althea.
420 reviews138 followers
December 9, 2020
4.5/5 Stars

I’m going to start this review by saying that I absolutely adored this book! I’ve been feeling a bit distanced from fantasy over the past year, despite it having always been my favourite genre, but this book reignited the love I have for fantasy novels! Despite this being one of my most anticipated 2020 releases, I was a tad apprehensive about picking this one up, after seeing so many people whose reviews I trust, rating this book a 3 stars or lower – but I really shouldn’t have been worried at all, as the book blew any of my expectations out of the water!

The book follows Ekata, who desperately wants to leave her Duchy to study medicine at university, and get as far away from her murderous family as possible. However, on the first night of her eldest brother’s brideshow, her whole family bar her falls under a magical curse where they all seem to be drowning. Ekata begrudgingly takes up the temporary position of Duke and is thrown into the political machinations of her Duchy while also picking one of the brides meant for her brother in order to avoid having to marry the man who seeks claim to her throne.

The world-building in this book is absolutely phenomenal! Recently, with a lot of the fantasy books I’ve read, the world-building has felt a bit lacking and I’ve had trouble picturing the setting in my head, but it was absolutely not a problem while reading The Winter Duke. The majority of the book takes place in Kylma Above – a Duchy completely made out of ice that is suspended upon a lake through the power of magic alone – although we frequently get to see the mysterious Kylma Below – a kingdom that sits in the water under Kylma Above, populated by a mysterious mermaid-like people who control the land’s magic. The chilly atmosphere of the book – both regarding the setting and the political environment – make this the perfect book for this time of year. You find yourself totally immersed in the world, from feeling the soft furs Ekata uses to keep herself warm at night against your skin, to the icy crunch of the spikes on the bottom of her boots that keep her from skiteing (a great Scots word!) across the great slabs of ice that make up her Duchy. And Kylma Below was so intriguing in itself, being simultaneously so dangerous and so beautiful while holding so much power.

The politics in the book sometimes felt maybe more new adult than young adult to me, so perhaps I would suggest this to slightly older YA readers, but as someone who loves political fantasies, this was right up my street. It had the perfect balance of backstabbing and scheming that kept me up until 2am, desperate to find out what would happen to Ekata and her family. I loved following all this drama from Ekata’s perspective, as she had never taken an interest in politics prior to being thrust into the position of Duke, instead focusing on academics, and so we learned everything alongside her.

A critique I frequently saw of the book was of Ekata herself – that she wasn’t a likeable main character, or that her actions felt rather like she did things without properly thinking them through first – but that’s something I liked about her. She was an imperfect human being who, after being forced to take up a position of power, was trying her best with the knowledge she had and was always thinking of how she could help her family while also dealing with trying to keep her Duchy stable. I enjoyed her softer moments when she was left alone with her mother figure, Aino, and her wife, Inkar. Inkar was by far my favourite character in the whole book – she’s absolutely hilarious and adds the perfect amount of comedy relief to an otherwise quite dark novel – and besides, who wouldn’t want a soft, warrior wife like her?! Bartlett also managed to create a villain that is so slimy and disconcerting that you cannot help but loathe him, and I thought that his character was written so, so well.

I also really enjoyed the queer rep and the lack of gendered positions in the book. The title of Duke is not gendered in the book whatsoever, and we see a similar situation with the title of Prince, as a character who uses she/her pronouns fills that role. There is also very casual queer rep in the book, as one of Ekata’s ministers goes by they/them pronouns and the Duke’s brideshow is made up of people of all genders. Casual queer rep, and worlds in which there is no homophobia or transphobia, is something that I absolutely adore in fantasy books, so I was very pleased to see it included here. The sapphic relationship between Ekata and Inkar was very slowburn (despite the book taking place over merely a handful of days) but I felt that its pacing was perfect for the story and when they finally kissed I cheered! I would have loved to have seen more of an emphasis on their relationship but I do understand why it took a bit of a back seat to the rest of Ekata’s storyline.

My only real critique of the book is that I wish that the ending had been fleshed out a bit more. It felt as though everything wrapped up too quickly and too nicely, and I would have liked to know more about what happened with the Duchy’s relationship with Kylma Below, the trade of magic and the fate of Ekata’s family, as these all felt glossed over. I would absolutely adore some sort of sequel, or even a novella, to see these aspects cleared up (and to see more of Ekata and Inkar because I love them so much!), but this is a book I will definitely be revisiting soon! I cannot recommend this book enough if you love political high fantasies and are a fan of Joan He’s Descendant of the Crane and Audrey Coulthurst’s Of Fire and Stars, as this book will definitely be right up your street!

Thanks to Netgalley and Titan Books for an e-ARC copy in return for an honest review!
Profile Image for Bookphenomena (Micky) .
2,378 reviews375 followers
October 25, 2020
I’m rounding this one up to 4 stars.

This was a YA fantasy with a historical feel. It had some foundations in Russian royal history and I enjoyed that element and this was some brutal family right here. The dukedom were out to kill one another for power, and the protagonist Ekata, felt justifiably out of the running as an insignificant daughter about to travel away to university. A curse hit and she found herself in a new position.

“Long live Her Grace.” Impossible, impossible. I was a middle child of thirteen.

This read had some great strong points, it was definitely a feminist tale. The title of Duke was genderless, power could be held equally between men and women but there’s a but. In reality, Ekata was surrounded by men who made her feel like a fool, wielded their power over her and used their gender to quash her thoughts, words and ideas.

All my life, these men had ignored me. It had never bothered me until now.

Those contrasts of what seemed to be equality and in acutality wasn’t, were frustrating for Ekata and the reader but this was the story, how Ekata navigated this. All this happened in the middle of a bride parade and Ekata chose her consort, a young woman. The romance and LGBTQ+ elements were a little weak but the protagonist was only 16 and so that did feel in the background somewhat. I would have liked this to have felt more developed, however.

I enjoyed the worlds of above and below and honestly, I read this over two days whenever I could; it had an unputdownable feel. There were elements to this story that felt unique, the magic was vague, unfathomable and mysterious, which I liked. Overall this was a good read and bonus, it was a standalone.

Thank you to Titan Books for the very pretty hardback review copy.

This review can be found on A Take From Two Cities Blog.
Profile Image for Jamie Dacyczyn.
1,582 reviews88 followers
March 30, 2020
3.5 stars. I have a lot of wishy washy thoughts about this book, so prepare for rambling...

In some ways, this is a very standard YA fantasy. A 16 year old princess (or, whatever you call the daughter of a Grand Duke) named Ekata is preparing to watch her heir-to-the-throne older brother go through the process of choosing a political marriage partner, when suddenly the entire royal family (except her) falls into some kind of cursed coma. Since her father, mother, and all of her siblings are incapacitated, Ekata is suddenly elevated to the role of Grand Duke, though it's temporary until the royal physicians and alchemist find a cure and revive her father.

This takes place in a frozen duchy called Kylma Above. (I marked this as "historical" since everyone travels via horseback or dogsled, fights with swords or axes, and the women wear corsets and crinolines...but it's not based in our world nor directly inspired by any one particular Earth culture.) Kylma Above is a city made entirely of ice, situated on top of a frozen lake. Their whole economy is based upon trading magic, which they get through a trade agreement with the mer-people who live in Kylma Below. The magic of Kylma Below is also what maintains the ice and the city Above. The Grand Duke is the only one who's gifted the power by those Below to be able to manipulate magic. Ekata is given the title of Grand Duke by default, but now she has to complete four trials in order to confirm her place on the throne and gain that magical control.

So....teenage girl, suddenly the "chosen one", alternating between self-doubt and surges of badass confidence. Pretty standard stuff. BUT, I think this book stands out from the crowd of overhyped, poorly-written YA fantasy because it avoids so many annoying tropes. There's no love triangle. It's NOT written in first-person/present-tense (thank GOD). There isn't a lot of flowery, purple-prose, thesaurus abuse in the writing. I don't think there was a single instant of "I released the breath I didn't realize I was holding" or lip biting or crashing heartbeats. The main character isn't one of those who's, like, totally plain and clumsy, but has purple eyes or flaming red hair or suddenly amazing sword skills. I don't think we even heard her hair color until halfway through the book, BECAUSE IT DOESN'T MATTER.

There is an early-introduced love interest, however it's not the typical oh-my-god-he-is-so-arrogant-but-so-hot kind that we keep getting. There is an arrogant jerk vying for Ekata's hand, but it's no where close to being a love triangle. The romance that DOES exist is slow building, fairly sweet, and doesn't take over the plot.

Ultimately, the main focus in the plot for this book is political machinations. Ekata is constantly bullied around by the Prime Minister (Eirhan) who wants her to marry Sigis, the aforementioned arrogant jerk, who is the son of a powerful ally. Doing so would help strengthen the duchy and firm up the allegiance...but Sigis is totally repulsive, and Ekata also knows he'd never be content to be a mere Consort, and she'd always be fighting to keep him from taking over. When the ministers try to force her hand, she makes the rash decision to quickly marry Inkar, daughter of one of her father's enemies, who's kind of a badass horse warrior. The marriage is a tentative one; when a Grand Duke chooses their bride, they have eight days to win the favor of their chosen Consort, which is the first part of the trials to confirm their Grand Duke status. Ekata was so desperate to avoid Sigis that she married the first pretty girl that caught her attention, and now her ministers are determined that she find a way to nullify the marriage and make a better political choice.

MEANWHILE, other ministers are pushing to get rid of the monarchical system and set up a parliament instead. Ekata's father vehemently opposed this, and she's determined to maintain the duchy in the current state so that when he eventually wakes up he can take over again. However, since it was never planned that SHE would one day rule, she doesn't really have a good grasp on how to manage things in the meantime. She alternates between looking ignorant of politics to trying to being a tyrannical dictator.

(I have to say that I felt some initial parallels with "The Queen of Attolia" that I was really hoping would come to fruition. In that, a minor princess, who has one trusted servant (same as Ekata) and gains the loyalty of some guards (same as Ekata), is suddenly elevated in rank as her father and brothers are assassinated (basically the same as Ekata), and then she watches as her barons squabble over who's going to marry her in order to claim the kingdom for themselves. I was DYING for Ekata to go the same route as Attolia; nodding to the captain of her guard, who lifted his crossbow and "shot the claimant for her hand through the heart." BOOYAH. But...nah, this ultimately went in a different direction. Again, these were minor parallels, but I was soooo waiting for it to go there.)

This book also gets props for gender/orientation representation. Ekata's older brother, Lyosha, is presented with both women AND men as possible options to be his bride and eventual Grand Consort. Ekata herself chooses another woman for her wife. No one bats an eye at any of this. One of her ministers has they/them pronouns, and it's not commented on at all; this person isn't automatically all-good or automatically all-bad either, unlike a typical tokenized character. It was refreshing to see this kind of gender-fluid, non-heteronormative society that everyone just takes for granted.

My ONLY issue with the above (which was never addressed) is the matter of lineage. One of the big plot points is that the magical agreement with Kylma-Below is dependent on someone from the Avenko bloodline remaining in power. So, if Ekata and her entire family are killed, or if the title of Grand Duke is obliterated in favor of a parliament alone, the entire city and the ice holding it up would fall apart. However, the Avenko family has a tradition of assassinating one another in order to eliminate competition for the throne, so heirs are presumably in short supply. I assume that if the Grand Duke chooses a same-sex Grand Consort, there won't be biological children to inherit the crown, nor much chance of a niece or nephew standing by as a handy blood-heir. And because of the parameters of the magical agreement they can't just pass the crown to a non-blood-relative by adopting. Soooo....how do they ensure the bloodline in this case? We do have the possibility of a distant cousin who's descended from a great-great-great-Grand-Duke, but that seems like a shaky basis for succession. I was waiting to hear about some kind of arrangement where perhaps there are concubines (male or female, depending on the situation) standing by ready to fulfill the biological needs of procreation. Or maybe there's a polyamorous situation, where you've got a Grand Duke, their Grand Consort, and then another husband/wife added to the arrangement for procreative purposes. But, this is never addressed, as far as I can recall. Nor do we find out that maybe the people in this world can reproduce asexually. So....*shrugs*

So, there were plenty of good interesting things to this book....but I didn't LOVE it. I kept waiting for the plot to take off, but it felt a bit stagnant at times. Eirhan bullies Ekata, she resists. Sigis acts like a slimey jerk toward Ekata, but she can't just get rid of him completely for Reasons. She keeps trying to revive her father or at least act like him, even though this seems to be the worst possible plan. She keeps trying to follow Eirhan's advice to push away Inkar, but finds herself drawn more and more toward this horse-warrior princess. She gets cornered by her ministers, so makes rash decisions that make people distrust her ability to rule. I kept wanting Ekata to have a big triumphant moment where she proves to everyone what she's capable of, but she kind of wallowed for most of the book. There were some twists near the end, but not quite the Attolian level of twists that I wanted after the Attolia parallels that I mentioned above. The world building was decent, but I wish we had a better picture of the world outside of Kylma, and I wish the magic was explained better (what do the other countries USE their traded magic for?).

I'm probably going to have to stew on this one for a bit. It was good, not great. I think it'd be a solid 3 stars for me BUT I pleased that this one avoided so many overused YA fantasy tropes and bad writing, so that one elevates it a bit for me. Is it enough for me to add it to my own library? I'm not sure yet. Still, this book and the author's previous one were both surprisingly not terrible, despite the sure-to-be-disappointing awesome-sounding plots and pretty covers, so I'm definitely going to keep my eye on this author for future works.
Profile Image for Lou (nonfiction fiend).
2,771 reviews1,617 followers
October 12, 2020
She survived the curse. Now she must survive the throne. All Ekata wants is to stay alive--and the chance to prove herself as a scholar. Once Ekata's brother is finally named heir to the dukedom of Kylma Above, there will be nothing to keep her at home with her murderous family. Not her books or her experiments, not her family's icy castle atop a frozen lake, not even the tantalizingly close Kylma Below, a mesmerizing underwater kingdom that provides her family with magic. But just as escape is within reach, her parents and twelve siblings fall under a strange sleeping sickness, and no one can find a cure.

In the space of a single night, Ekata inherits the title of duke, her brother's captivating warrior bride, and ever-encroaching challengers from without--and within--her ministry. Nothing has prepared Ekata for diplomacy, for war, for love...or for a crown she has never wanted. If Kylma Above is to survive, Ekata must seize her family's magic and power. And if Ekata is to survive, she must quickly decide how she will wield them both. This is an enchanting and fast-paced feminist fairytale full of intrigue from one of the finest fantasy writers working today and right from the opening page it whisks you off to a world entirely different to our own.

It's a world so richly imagined and carefully created that you can't help but be immersed; with intricate detail, the author envelops you and allows you to live alongside the characters. Speaking of the cast, each is engaging regardless of whether they are classed as a goodie or a baddie, protagonist or antagonist and central character, Ekata, who although made some very misguided decisions leapt off the page and into my heart, and I was desperate to see her change her situation around for the better and thrive. A refreshingly original queer modern fairytale, this is an exquisite read full of twisty-turny politics, unique magic and even a little romance. Many thanks to Titan Books for an ARC.
Profile Image for El.
443 reviews29 followers
April 6, 2020
This was good! A good solid read. It wasn't amazing or a new favourite or anything but I'm definitely glad I read it

So what’s going on here?
Ekata Avenko thinks she has her life planned out, or the next several years of it at least; in a few days she will travel south, away from her kingdom made of ice, attend the university there, and eventually study biology for the rest of her days. However everything changes in an instant when, in the middle of the night, she is suddenly crowned grand duke of Kylma Above. Being the middle child in a family of 13, she did not expect to ever have the throne, nor did she ever want it. But her entire family, save for her, has been put into a magic-induced sleep that no one knows how to cure. And so Ekata is thrust into a world of politics, back-stabbing, an annoying and cruel foreign king, and a sudden marriage to a woman who's name she doesn't even know, all before her morning coffee. Not to mention the apparent plot to overthrow her, and possibly also murder her. No big deal. But due to a magical deal made with Kylma Below hundreds of years ago, an Avenko must always be sitting on the thrown. And so Ekata must work tirelessly to find the cure to wake her family, before the entire kingdom melts to nothing around her.

What I loved
First and foremost, the writing in this is phenomenal. This is the first book I've read by this author but I'll definitely be reading more. Girl knows how to do a plot twist, DAMN I didn't see any of those coming! The Winter Duke was very well executed, and I found myself thoroughly entertained most of the time even though I don't usually care for political stories. I think the world of this novel made me more interested in the politics, especially Kylma Below. I like that we got to explore the underwater kingdom quite a bit, but I do wish Meire had a larger role. I liked all of the characters, I thought most of them were pretty well developed and distinct personalities. My absolute favourite thing about The Winter Duke though, is how Bartlett went about integrating LGBTQ+ characters into the story. If you know me at all then you know I love a world where queerness isn't even blinked at, it's just a regular everyday part of their society, and no one even thinks to think twice about it. I absolutely adore that (and wish I could live in any of those worlds, ugh) and Bartlett did an amazing job at capturing exactly what I love. I loved the casual use of they/them pronouns, the mix of genders for the brideshow, and Ekata and Inkar in general. The romance was so cute, although a very minor part of the book. Overall it was just a really well book

What I didn’t love
I had a bit of a hard time with Ekata, mainly because she's painted in the beginning as this really intelligent person, a scientist with a constant sense of wonder about the world. And we did get the wonder quite a bit, but I found that we didn't often get the intelligent lmfao. I get that she was entirely out of her element in the political world, but the way she went about everything made her seem kind of dumb? Like she couldn't figure out the most basic social cues, could remember every bone in the human body but couldn't remember a few names, and had so much trouble making even simple decisions or understanding basic policy. I think Bartlett was probably going for a more socially awkward vibe, and also trying to show that Ekata had no idea what she was doing (which is fair), but it came across as unintelligent to me. It was also a little frustrating as the reader because, since she was the narrator and didn't understand or listen to any of the political talk going on around her, I also had a hard time following along with the politics which made it difficult to really care about what was happening. I feel like if I had been able to understand what the people actually wanted, I would have understood the motivations behind the ones who did the thing that I won't spoil. But at the end of the book, while the plot twist was really good and very well done, I found myself thinking "wait, why did these people want all of this to happen? What do they gain from it, or what do they hope to change after it's all said and done?" So that was a little confusing and most of the reason that I gave this a lower rating than I otherwise might of. I also wish there was just a touch more romance to it. I really liked the scenes Ekata had with Inkar, you really got to see who she was as a person when they were together, but they weren't together enough for me to really get invested in their relationship (I still was though because f/f romance of any kind is an instant stan in my books, especially in fantasy since it's so rare).

Overall thoughts
This was great, I definitely recommend it despite the few things that I disliked. And I can't wait to read more from this author!
Profile Image for Sara (A Gingerly Review).
2,679 reviews155 followers
July 22, 2020
I really enjoyed this one!


This story was captivating. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. I felt as if everything was very well done – the world building, the character development, the pacing, all of it. The world building and the magic within this dukedom stood out the most to me. I was surprised that magic did not have a bigger role to play in this world but it was added in just enough to make the read that much more enjoyable. Image, a world of ice ruled by a family who alone hold the secret over how to use magic. Genius.

I also enjoyed the LGBT romance within this story. It was refreshing to read story in which the characters live in a world where gender/sexuality do not define a person. If the Duke (who happened to be a female in this story) wanted to be with/engaged to a man or woman, so be it. Nobody batted an eye. Marvelous.

The mystery found within the pages was very well developed and executed. I was tearing through this trying to figure out who put the family to sleep. Just when I thought I figured it out, I was wrong. I had a delightful time trying to figure out all out! The danger, the romance, the action, the challenges, all of it was so well done that I cannot wait to read more from this author.
June 20, 2020
Claire Eliza Bartlett’s YA fantasy novel The Winter Duke is an atmospheric story of with ambition and intrigue. While I initially picked it up because it features a F/F romance and I was participating in a reading challenge focus on sapphic romances, I found myself enjoying this for far more than just the romance.

The Winter Duke is a pretty plot-based story, but thankfully the plot hooked me enough that I tore through my copy pretty fast. Ekata is the middle child in a family of backstabbing nobles, but she wants nothing to do with her family’s schemes and political machinations. As soon as her older brother the heir picks a consort, she’s determined to leave her ruthless family behind by escaping south to university and pursuing a career as a doctor. But when her brother’s brideshow ends not with an engagement, but with her whole family succumbing to a mysterious curse, Ekata finds herself thrust into the one role she never wanted: Grand Duke of Kylma. Forced to navigate treacherous court politics and fend off sleazy would-be consorts, Ekata must break the curse on her family before it’s too late. Bartlett weaves a web of court intrigue and mysterious magic–who really lay the curse on Ekata’s family, and can it be broken?–that I found very compelling.

The world-building was probably one of my favorite things about this book. The setting of Ekata’s duchy felt atmospheric and really unique. Kylma is a snowy, Russian-inspired duchy built on a frozen lake and ruled by a line of backstabbing dukes who hold the secret to distilling and harnessing magic. But beneath the frozen surface of the lake is Kylma Below, an underwater counterpart inhabited by mermaids who provide the raw magic. Yes, there’s mermaids in this book and I loved it!

The romance that develops throughout was something else I also ended up loving. In order to prevent a marriage to a terrible would-be consort/usurper, Ekata randomly selects a visiting princess from what had been her brother’s brideshow to marry (a legendary gay power move), but the two end up forming a genuine connection. Inkar is a buff Viking warrior princess and Ekata is a would-be scientist/doctor who just wants out from the cutthroat political world she’s been raised, which is a quality dynamic in my opinion. Watching the two slowly open up to each other despite their treacherous circumstances really was a highlight of the book. There’s also a great helping of “only one bed,” but with POLITICAL RAMIFICATIONS.

One thing I really appreciated about The Winter Duke is that it’s set in a world that has no sexism and inclusive of LGBTQ+ identities. Ekata seems to be a lesbian, Inkar is probably bi, Ekata’s older brother had both men and woman at his brideshow, and there are several side characters who use they/them pronouns with no fuss. No one has any issue with a woman ruling Kylma or her consort being a woman, which I liked. Ruthless fantasy worlds without sexism, homophobia, or transphobia: it’s possible.

While I mostly liked The Winter Duke, I do think middle did lagged a bit, which is why my rating isn’t a full five stars. There were some scenes of Ekata struggling in her role at the Grand Duke that felt a tad repetitive that made the middle feel a bit slower than I would have liked. I would have also liked a bit more of the developing romance between Ekara and Inkar since those scenes were some of my favorite. But overall, I thought The Winter Duke was a solid standalone fantasy and I’d definitely recommend it to those who like their political intrigue with a helping of LGBTQ+ representation.

Representation: Sapphic (lesbian?) main character, sapphic (bi?) love interest, F/F romance, nonbinary side characters, side character of color (otherwise pretty white, though)
Profile Image for michelle (magical reads).
839 reviews217 followers
March 8, 2020
read on my blog + a playlist I made for the book + a giveaway!

**I received an ARC for this blog tour. These are my honest opinions, and in no way was I compensated for this review.**

My favorite tutor said that other people’s siblings were noisy, argumentative telltales. My siblings tried to murder one another.

I’ve been so pumped for this book since the cover reveal; I mean, just look at it! It’s gorgeous! And then I found out that this book is sapphic, and I was even more excited for it. This book did not disappoint; The Winter Duke was a slow-paced fantasy with wonderful worldbuilding and great characters.

Ekata is forced to take the throne after a mysterious illness strikes her parents and her 12 siblings. Ironically, she’s the only one of them who’s never wanted the throne so she has to figure out how to navigate this political world that she’s ignored for so long. However, she’s only provisional grand duke, so she still has to compete for the actual title against her former foster brother, Sigis.

“I could make you a ring with a diamond the same color as your eyes.”
“Gray?” Did he really think that was romantic?

My favorite part is when, since she refuses to marry Sigis, she marches into the room where all the prospective spouses from the brideshow are, and she chooses Inkar, simply because she was annoyed that she was laughing at her. Ekata immediately declares her her wife and then walks out; the gayest power move ever honestly!

Meanwhile, Ekata also has to solve the question of who cursed her family all while trying not to be assassinated. In a way, this book reminded me of Bitterblue in that she’s navigating a political world and uncovering secrets.

The worldbuilding was interesting; basically the Avenko family rules the duchy Above, and the Below is a kingdom under the lake that has magic. They’re the only ones who are in communication with the Below, so they’re the only ones who control all the magic that’s exported.

I’m an Avenko, I tried to tell myself. I was born to this.

Anyways, what I loved about this book is that from the very beginning, it is made clear that this is not a heteronormative world. Numerous nonbinary side characters are mentioned, and the brideshow consists of people of all genders. Originally the brideshow was for Ekata’s brother and then Ekata picks from the same people, and it’s never questioned. And, of course, this book features a f/f ship at the forefront.

Ekata and Inkar were amazing together! Inkar pushes her past her boundaries, and they bond quickly, despite Ekata trying to keep her at arm’s length. I really loved their dynamic! Ekata is the epitome of the awkward, oblivious science nerd, and Inkar is the soft, buff jock.

I think an unconventional grand duke deserves an unconventional consort.

My only complaint is that I was really into the first and last third of the book, but the middle third dragged a lot and not much happened, plot-wise. It is a slow-paced fantasy though, so I should have expected it.

The Winter Duke was an amazing read with normalized gay relationships, wonderful worldbuilding, and lovely characters. I definitely recommend it, especially if you want to read a sapphic fantasy!
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