WARNING! This review WILL contain spoilers for earlier books in the series. Do NOT keep reading this review if you're not caught up, having read all three previous books! There are also some minor spoilers for this book, but if you skip my list of dislikes, you'll avoid them.
Winter was one of the books I was most anticipating in the second half of 2015. Marissa Meyer's retellings of Grimm fairy tales with a clever YA sci-fi dystopian twist just kept getting better with every book. I was extremely pleasantly surprised by the first book in the series, Cinder, where Cinderella is a cyborg mechanic who falls for the son of the emperor, and turns out to be the long lost, believed to be dead princess of the moon. In book 2, Scarlet, we meet our Red Riding Hood, French farm girl Scarlet Benoit, looking for her missing grandmother. She meets Cinder, now an international fugitive on the run with spaceship captain Carswell Thorne. Scarlet also falls for a biologically augmented Lunar super soldier, her Wolf and they both join in Cinder's seemingly impossible quest to reclaim her throne. In book 3, the little band of rebels liberate the evil Lunar queen's secret weapon, tech genius Cress (our Rapunzel) from a spy satellite orbiting Earth. Cress and a blinded Thorne have to traverse the desert together to reunite with the others, and Cress' initial crush on the captain, based on fantasies she made up when alone on her satellite, become actual infatuation as she spends more time with him.
When Winter begins, Cinder has prevented Queen Levana's wedding to Emperor Kai by kidnapping him. He is working with Cinder and the others on a plan to depose Levana and restore Cinder (or Selene - her birth name), but the rebels have also lost someone dear to them. Scarlet has been taken prisoner by Lunar soldiers and the gang don't know if she's alive or dead. She's actually being held captive in the zoo in the Lunar capital, kept alive by the kindness of princess Winter, Levana's stepdaughter.
Winter is our Snow White, "fairest of them all" on Luna, despite, or possibly because of the scars marring her cheek (forced on her by her jealous stepmother). Winter is the only Lunar who refuses to use her gift to manipulate the minds and perceptions of others, never using glamour or trying to influence actions, and as a result, she is slowly going insane. She has moments of lucidity and is clearly quite clever, but also episodes where she has to focus to hold it together, as she vividly feels herself turning to ice and shattering or sees the palace walls running with blood. More alarming than your run of the mill panic attack. The daughter of a palace guard, Winter became a reluctant member of palace royalty when her father married Levana. Crazy or not, she's forced to be present in the throne room every time her stepmother sentences anyone, making herself seem unaffected by the bloody spectacle.
Winter is terrified that Levana will execute Jacin, the royal guard she grew up with and has loved pretty much always (Winter, not Levana obvs.). Jacin is accused of treason and siding with Cinder and the other rebels, but manages to convince the queen that he was spying on them after he reveals some very incriminating information about them. He is punished, then re-instated as a royal guard, given the task to personally guard Winter (and make sure she is kept under control and from making scenes in public).
Kai is returned to his home in the next level of the plan to topple Levana and restore Cinder as Luna's rightful queen. He convinces Levana to move the wedding to Luna, allowing his ship to smuggle Cinder and her crew along. Of course, everything starts going pretty seriously wrong shortly after the ship lands in the Lunar capital and Cinder and several of friends are separated. Kai is taken into house arrest, safe at least until after the wedding, as Levana isn't going to let the chance of becoming Empress pass her by. Trying to quash the rebellion of her niece, Levana gets more and more frustrated with Winter's continued popularity amongst the common people.
She gets one of her chief goons to propose marriage to the princess, who is shocked and creeped out and refuses, thus sealing her death sentence. Levana demands that Jacin prove his loyalty once and for all by murdering Winter, claiming that at least he will make sure it's quick and painless. Jacin manipulates security footage so it looks like he stabs Winter, but instead frees Scarlet and makes her promise that she will take Winter to safety, joining Cinder and the gang, currently hiding out in a remote mining settlement.
Thus Jacin and Winter get irrevocably connected with Cinder and her rebellion and from there on out, they become supporting characters in a book which has so many characters and plot lines to keep track of. Cinder's plan to convince the populace of Luna that she is the long-lost princess Selene, incite a revolution, dethroning Levana and becoming the rightful ruler is poorly thought through, to say the least and for much of the book, it seems like pure luck that they get anywhere at all, rather than brutally mowed down by Levana's security troops.
I really liked the first three books in this series and had such high hopes for this book. Generally I found this book a disappointment. Here's why:
At more than 800 pages, it's more than twice the length of the first book in the series. Yet so much of what happens in it feels rushed, confusing and chaotic. There is far too much plot crammed into this book - making it a very hectic read.
In previous books, the action has taken place on Earth or in space, for the most part. This is the first book where the plot is mostly set on Luna. Lunar society, with an artificially created and extravagant capital, full of dolled-up nobility without any sort of social conscience, and the many remote provinces full of oppressed commoners creating resources for the capital - it all got very Hunger Games-y.
Just as Cinder's rebellion felt a bit like Mockingjay. So much of it felt like things I'd read before, elsewhere, which is sad, because in the previous three books, that has not been the case.
In the previous two books, while the newly introduced characters were woven into the larger framework of Cinder's story, they've still had a chance to shine, and Meyer has successfully re-imagined three different fairy tales. Winter and Jacin, who should have had their chance to shine in this book, are almost buried in all the other stuff that happens. This is a great shame, as Winter seems like a delightful character and her interactions with Jacin, as well as their whole relationship, is pretty much solid gold.
Cress, who I loved in her own book, spends much of this one being terribly self-conscious and annoyingly insecure, mooning over Thorne in a really frustrating way.
The climax of the book got incredibly confusing. There is too much repetition of the same things over and over again (one or more of our characters are in peril, probably manipulated by a Lunar into attacking one of the others, situation gets resolved - rinse -repeat)
Wolf's capture and the alterations made (don't want to say more and spoil things) seem like they are very easily worked around. If they are, why was his capture such a big deal?
Levana - just not scary enough. She has utterly terrifying power, yet seems tedious most of the time. For complete and utter mind control done right, see Kilgrave in Netflix and Marvel's Jessica Jones. That's how scary mind control should be. Why isn't it here?
I'm also not at all keen on the way Cinder and the others felt that the video of Levana without her glamour should be the thing that really helped them incite rebellion. Surely there are a lot worse accusations that could have been levelled at Levana to get support from the common people, rather than just expose what she looks like under her glamour?
So what did I like?
- Finally getting Winter's story and all the clever sci-fi-twisting of the Snow White fairy tale. I also really like that Winter is dark-skinned, adding further to the diversity of the series.
- Winter and Jacin are super adorable. I didn't like Jacin much in previous books, when he was being used as an antagonist, but he is wonderful whenever he is around or thinking about his princess.
- Seeing more of Luna and discovering where Wolf came from was nice.
- All the cool fairy tale twists reminds me how creative and clever Meyer can be.
- It was certainly a roller-coaster of a read. Soo many cliff-hangers.
The previous three books show how good a writer Meyer can be. There is so much potential in this book, but ultimately, it just tried to do too much. I think maybe it should have been split into two, so we could have had more focus on Winter in this book, leaving the final rebellion and grand conclusion to the story to happen in a fifth book. There was so much that needed to happen in this last book. It just all got a bit too much of a muchness. It's by no means an awful book, but absolutely the weakest in the series and a disappointing end to an otherwise fun and original sci-fi ride.