James Hetley, The Winter Oak (Ace, 2004)
The Winter Oak is the sequel to The Summer Country, the first novel from this talented writer. Michael Jones, in his GMR review, said of that novel:
When two worlds collide, lives are thrown into turmoil. People will live, people will die, and magic will rage freely. Maureen Pierce is twenty-eight, but looks young for her age. She works as a convenience store clerk, in the town of Naskeag Falls, Maine. She lives with her wilder, hard-partying sister Jo. Almost psychotically afraid of intimacy, she carries a Smith and Wesson Chief's Special .38, and she's not afraid to use it. And it doesn't do her a damn bit of good when a dark, squat, terrifying stranger stalks her one wintry night. That's when everything she knows is shoved into a blender and turned to mush. That's when the mysterious Brian Albion appears from nowhere to save her, destroying the seemingly unkillable man he calls Liam, incinerating the body before it can come back to life. That's when Brian tells Maureen that magic still exists, and she's the newest pawn in a game that has stretched on for centuries. . . .
The Summer Country itself is that place of neo-Celtic pagan mythology which is also called Avalon. It is generally thought of as a peaceful place, a place where (literally) summer never ends. Not in this universe, as this is a darker, more chilling place. And the shape it takes is not terribly pleasant in many cases. Human slaves. Why not? Blood drinking hedges? Sure. Involuntary shape-shifting of people including their gender? Yep. It can said without fear of contradiction that Old Ones here can be every bit as evil as the Unseelie Court members are in Laurell Hamilton's Merry Gentry series. And their dislike for mortals is, in many cases, just as strong as that of the Fey in the Hamilton series. . . .
Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts everything. And power in the Summer Country can be very absolute here. A curse here can kill, can render you helpless, can even make the fertile go barren. Now conversely a blessing here can tame the wild, heal the dying, and overcome evil. It all depends on knowing what you can do. If you believe in what you can do, it appears anything is possible.
The Summer Country introduced us to two seriously fucked sisters, Jo and Maureen Pierce, living in Hetley's invented town of Naskeag Falls. I asked him if it was Old Town or Lincoln, two mill towns that it reminded me. His answer was no: 'Naskeag Falls is an amalgam of Bangor and Lewiston/Auburn, with University of Maine at Orono tacked on. It's too big to be Old Town or Lincoln. A lot of this doesn't show up in the two stories so far, as the town is more a place to be from rather than a central feature of the action.' He went on to note of future novels in this universe that 'Stonefort, setting for Dragon's Eye and Dragon' Teeth, is a small coastal community modelled on Stonington or Jonesport/Beals.'
For those of you from 'away', those are two small coastal villages 'Downeast'. I'll admit that I didn't get a strong feeling for Naskeag Falls in either of these first novels in this series, but it didn't really matter as the richly drawn characters are what matters here.
Jo and Maureen Pierce have the blood of the Old Ones flowing in their veins, and that's not good news from them as other Old Ones would see them dead, or at least pawns in the their not very pretty games in the Summer Country. They survive -- barely -- the attempts to kill them in the first novel, but now Fiona, the witch they thought they had vanquished, and the mate of the dragon they killed are out for their blood. Meanwhile Brian Albion discovers that The Pendragons, the ancient order of warriors that he belongs to, founded by Merlin Himself, may be as evil as Fiona is. (Hetley, in the same conversation, went on to note that 'I'm working on a prequel to those, giving Brian a bit of time on R& R before I toss him back into battle for the heart and soul of the Pendragons.' Did I mention that both the sisters have serious drinking problems? And that an Old One can summon anything his or her desires including more booze than even they can drink? (Roger Zelazny made use of that same power in his Amber chronicles. Nice plot device if used properly as it is here.) Keep that in mind as it is very important to how the sisters (in the end) overcome their demons. And their enemies.
As one character, David, poet and musician, mate of Jo, says:
Fear. That was the soul of the Summer Country. He'd bugged out, thrown the bow and arrows and the pack into the bushes and run from a lizard bigger than a tandem trailer rig. He'd only come back because there wasn't any place to run to. Sheer luck, he'd killed that goddamned dinosaur masquerading as a Chinese dragon. And then they'd been captured anyway. And now he knew there was another dragon, even bigger, swearing vendetta for his mate's death. Who would have thought they were intelligent, got married, for Chrissake?
This is adult literature at its finest. Bad things, including horrific injuries, happen to several of the characters &emdash; now they do heal given that they are Old Ones and almost impossible to kill unless you decapitate them, so dying isn't the question so much as how much blood and gore you, dear reader, can take. It's no worse than the violence level in the Merry Gentry series, and far less than in many Stephen King novels, so consider yourself warned. Speaking of King, Hetley's a better writer than King as most King novels have left me reaching for something else to read. Not so with this author.
Side-note &emdash; the dragons in these novels are very, very cool. And like none that you've encountered elsewhere. Indeed he noted in our conversation: 'The last book in the series, the spring one, will be mainly focused on helping Khe'sha and the nestlings get back where they belong. I think they've earned a book of their own.' Khe'sha and his mate are truly alien creatures who, like everyone else here in both realities, have free will, so can either be good or be evil. Or perhaps even both.
My measure of a great novel is if I believe in the characters and what they get involved in. In a span of a few months, I read this novel, Charles de Lint's The Blue Girl, and Paul Brandon's The Wild Reel. All three dealt with the Fey in some form, and all three were well-worth the time spent reading them. All three of these novels make me hope that the authors will revisit these characters soon!
I am looking forward to more books in the series, so I told him that I had very much enjoyed The Winter Oak, asked him if more in the series were planned I was delighted with his answer:
Glad you liked it. Sequel? Well, I have another two books tucked into the back of my head, completing the season cycle, but haven't written either one yet. My next sale is distantly related, Dragon's Eye set in the same fantasy Maine but a different town. That one is due out November 2005, and a sequel to that is sitting on my editor's desk waiting for her yea or nay . . . I don't know where people get the notion that story ideas are scarce. Most writers I know have ten times as many ideas as they have time to write.'
You'll want to read The Summer Country first before you dive into The Winter Oak as this is that rarity of sequels, one that perfectly builds off the previous novel. James Hetley can be very proud of the story he has created -- it's that good!
Post-script: In an email that Hetley sent me after I wrote this review and he looked it over, he informs me that 'Looking over the Winter Oak review again, I came up with a minor quibble. You can't kill an Old One just by cutting off his head. You have to burn the body. Even then, you can't be really sure.... Back at the start of Summer Country, Brian says he hopes Liam is dead.' I stand corrected.