Title: The Winter Boy
Author: Sally Wiener Grotta
Genres: Dystopia | Fantasy | Science Fiction | Speculative Fiction
Length: 508 pages | 8160 locations
The Valley is home to the Alleshi, a society of widows dedicated to shaping boys into Allemen, who will later become the defenders of the Peace.
Each boy is paired with a single Allesha and must obey many rules, if they even hope to become one.
Rishana is challenged to accept her first blessed boy, even though her training has not ended.
Ryl is a problem boy if there ever was one, so it will be no easy task.
However, the Peace is being threatened, and people go about different ways in dealing with the problem.
It’s up to Rishana and her first boy to find out what exactly is happening, while helping him reach his full potential and becoming an Alleman.
In a world where older men being with younger women is often times considered perfectly normal but the other way around is more often than not frown upon, The Winter Boy is bound to do stir up some heated opinions.
I have to admit it is hard for me to picture an 18-year-old boy feeling attracted to a 60-year-old woman, for instance, so on that level I had a bit of trouble connecting to the book and accepting such a premise.
That said, I can absolutely see why a boy would find an older woman compelling and even fascinating, especially after getting to know her. Her vast knowledge, her empathy, her maturity… all must sound incredibly appealing.
And it is not uncommon that teenagers will feel attracted to their friends’ mothers, for instance. This book just takes this dynamic to a whole new level.
In this world, Alleshi are in charge of shaping young men into mature Allemen, who will don the skills required to maintain the Peace achieved after the Great Chaos.
Allesha means Every Woman and, as such, they are their boys’ teachers in all aspects that involve helping them grow into manhood.
Our main character is Rishana, and I have to admit I was surprised when I read she was 43 years old, especially since she keeps being referred to as the young woman or the young Allesha. That premise alone piqued my interest from the get go, and from then on I was fully engaged with the story.
However, the fact is that she did not sound 43 to me, particularly in the beginning. Lines like Arrogant, manipulative, overbearing… I won’t be like her! made me think of her more as the teenager type, when you are not yet sure of who you are or who you want to be and are filled with that rebellious angst, and during those first couple of chapters that is the vibe I got from Rishana.
That said, it was a pleasure to watch her grow. You see, when the narrative begins, we are told she has not completed her training to become and Allesha but, for some obscure reason we do not know of until much later, she is chosen to accept her First Boy four months prior to completing said training. So we watch her, just as much as the boy, growing into their roles, with several subplots in the mix, which create much appreciated depth in the narrative and served to grasp my full attention and admiration at such a splendidly weaved story.
For instance, at times, Ryl and Rishana’s story was interspersed with ones they read from books, necessary for Ryl’s training. This brought a whole new dimension to the narrative, and all the text, both then and now, served to engage me in very thought-provoking issues, while unearthing why their world was the way it was.
Ryl… Boy, will I miss his Damn that woman!! outbursts, which had me smiling while reading in public (don’t you love it when that happens??).
I really thought I would not feel content with his character growth into who I knew he would become, given how impulsive and reckless he was in the beginning, but the fact is it was masterfully done. Completely believable. And, as his Allesha, I could not help but feel very proud of him.
Rishana’s development was also done very well. I enjoyed watching her struggle with her uncertainties and sense of betrayal, while striving to maintain her role as Allesha and everything it implied.
What to do when you realize the world and people you built your life around were not as you thought they were?
How to accept having been manipulated?
With all that you uncover, is it possible to blindly cling to your beliefs and principles?
And what about the winter boy? She must not let him realize what is happening… right?
Watching her figure out how to deal with all of it was quite captivating.
There is much more I would comment on, but I will not get into it as to not spoil the book. I will however mention that this is very clearly a character driven book and that the individuals’ development is very well accomplished, in my opinion, and you cannot help but relate to both of them.
We also get to know some of the side characters and the way they think which, along with the impartial third person style of narrative, adds even more depth to the story.
The book has many unique things: the naming rituals and their meanings; the notion of an Allesha as every woman; how everything was a lesson, even the most trivial matters; how Rishana was able to read Ryl and know exactly what he needed and how it all made perfect sense; the concept that Alleshi could have programmed the stages each boy would go through in a season; how senseless destruction may have a reason after all, even if you don’t agree with it – I love it when an author presents me with a book which features no obvious bad guys. Everyone is good and bad, know what I mean? Though one’s actions may be wrong, in the end everyone is human.
And so much more…
The world is simply unlike any I have read. I don’t even know how to classify the book’s genre. There is no magic involved, but I guess it’s fantasy. It’s not science fiction at all, at least to me, since the world seems to be inhabited by almost tribe-like clusters, with storytellers and healers and headmen, bringing us back to medieval times (even though it could be ours), and there is mention of guns and other types of devices, but all very vague and, in my opinion, with no real pertinence to the story. So I will go more towards speculative fiction.
I suppose it can be designated as post-apocalyptic, since the Peace was established after an event people call The Great Chaos. The Alleshi have formed alliances with many villages because they have found that interest in trade surpasses that of war, and together everyone thrives.
It seems quite idyllic, doesn’t it? Everyone working together to achieve a higher purpose. For a large portion of the book, everything does seem rather utopic. No one really dislikes society the way it is. As a matter of fact, they want to keep it that way. It’s just some are willing to become like those they abhor the most in order to achieve that. So I would classify the world more as utopic than dystopic and not even consider other classifications other than speculative fiction, but I went with the genres mentioned on GoodReads.
The Winter Boy teaches, if nothing else, that the means you use to achieve an end do matter. It constantly questions the characters – and, by proxy, the reader – what kind of person they want to be.
Reading this book was an absolute pleasure. As a character driven book, it is not a fast paced, action packed narrative, for the most part. It is long and can be quite descriptive, but never boring (I felt the slower bits were absolutely necessary, if only to allow me to process all the new knowledge and emotions being poured into me), and the language is very accessible to everyone.
There is also no obvious writing formula; plot twists came when I least expected them and, well, the fact is I did not expect most of what happened, at least not when/how the way it did.
The Winter Boy truly is a pearl amongst its peers. It is a tale that needs to be properly savoured, so it cannot be rushed, and I only wish I could have read it in one sitting so I could completely lose myself in it.
It’s not perfect, of course. For instance, the multiple names. I had a bit of trouble keeping track of all of them, and I still don’t get why Savah was the one to name Rishana and not Dara, her mentor.
There were other portions of the narrative which I would have liked to see more developed. Some chapters transitions felt abrupt, considering past ones.
Towards the end, it got even more rushed, too much for my taste. I wanted to watch every stage of Ryl’s season unfold, including the formation of his Triad.
I was particularly saddened by the ending, though I cannot tell if whether because this experience finally came to an end or because I wanted to know what happened to Ryl and was so sad for Rishana. I was glad to learn in the afterword that the author is devising a novel to follow up on where The Winter Boy left us and look forward to continuing the series.
This book is a solid 4.5 stars for me. While deciding whether to round them up or down, I had to ask myself Will this book stay with me? (yes) and Did it make me feel the way other 4 star books did?
I have to admit it didn’t. Even though a lot was left unexplained or addressed, whatever flaws the book had were flimsy by comparison to how it gripped for the entire duration of this journey, and so I settled on rating it 5 stars on all sites where I cannot do half stars.
I highly recommend The Winter Boy to all who are looking for a more adult take on fantasy, and can handle having your full self whisked away to another world and fully immersed in it, if you let it.
Disclaimer: I would like to thank the publisher and Netgalley for providing me a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.
Read from May 11 to May 16, 2015