The Wolf of Winter
by Paula Volsky
A book review by Mark L. Olson
Bantam Spectra, 1994, $5.99, 499 pp
Paula Volsky has written a bunch of books (including the excellent The White Tribunal and The Grand Ellipse) set on a fascinating world of magic and adventure. I don't think she's given it a name. The world is unusually real for a fantasy world with numerous nations which echo various countries on Earth in the 1700s and 1800s.
Each country has its own characteristic magic, never terribly showy or terribly intrusive on ordinary life, but present and real nonetheless.
The Wolf of Winter is set in Rhazaulle, a northern country with more than a small resemblance to 18th century Russia. Rhazaulle's magic is necromancy and it is savagely suppressed whenever it is detected. In spite of that, Rhazaulle has many necromancers and many unquiet ghosts. Necromancy is a dangerous business, with a kind of madness called spifflication the almost inevitable result. Soon for many, later for some who are strong.
Varis is the intellectual younger brother of the Ulor (the Czar) who is the butt of jokes and barely tolerated by his robust siblings. The Wolf of Winter is the story of Varis beginning to dabble in necromancy out of curiosity and then to seek revenge and power. Unfortunately (for him, anyway), his killings of relatives doesn't go quite far enough and a young niece and nephew escape to a nearby (vaguely French) country whose king can put a pretender to Rhazaulle's throne to good use. The niece and nephew are hidden away and educated, and Varis proves an enlightened, albeit strange, Ulor.
The best parts of the story are Varis' temptation and fall into necromancy and his niece's education and growth into a competent young woman and her own temptation by necromancy. In the end, niece and nephew return at the head of an army and overthrow Varis, but they do not do so unscathed.
Highly recommended. Volsky's fantasy continues to be a large notch above the generic.
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