Red Winter

Red Winter was written by Annette Marie and first published in 2016. It is an urban fantasy story set in Japan, focusing on a shrine maiden who discovers that the spiritual world may not be as black and white as she was led to believe. The novel forms the first part of the Red Winter Trilogy and is followed by Dark Tempest (2017) and Immortal Fire (2017).

Emi is proud to be the kamigakari. Ever since Amaterasu’s mark appeared on her chest, she has led a sheltered life to ensure that her body and spirit are pure enough to be a vessel for the kami’s power. Although Emi is not sure what the future will hold for her, she is proud to have been chosen and nervously looks forward to the day when she and Amaterasu will become one.

However, not everyone is as keen for the goddess to walk the earth once again. For years, evil yōkai have tried to kill Emi to delay the descension. Due to this, she is regularly moved from shrine to shrine and always protected by sohei – warrior monks. Her final few months as a mortal are to be spent at the remote Shirayuri Shrine and she is shocked on arrival to discover that her new sohei is Katsuo – a boy who was indirectly linked to the greatest tragedy of her life.

Although shaken by seeing Katsuo once again, Emi is determined to not let this affect her duty. However, things start to change as she discovers what it truly means to be the kamigakari and saves the life of Shiro – a kitsune – who should be her sworn enemy. Shiro now owes her a debt, and Emi needs to find a way to change her fate. However, is a single fox’s magic enough to stand up to the power of the gods?

Red Winter is a beautifully written novel that completely embraces its source material. Although the story is set in modern-day Japan, it is very easy to forget this as Emi very rarely ventures into town. Instead, a majority of the tale is set at traditional shrines and deep in oni-infested woods. Red Winter is very easy to get into, although it does contain a lot of Japanese words and concepts. Luckily, even if you are unfamiliar with the culture and mythology, the novel does contain an extensive glossary of terms. It helpfully also has a pronunciation guide to help readers with the character names, which I thought was particularly useful.

The story is told from the first-person perspective of Emi, a young girl who has been groomed from youth and is largely ignorant of the world outside of her very small circle. Due to the fact that she has been chosen to be the vessel for a kami to be reborn on Earth, great lengths have been taken to ensure that she is as healthy as possible. This has ranged from forbidding her from doing any dangerous form of exercise to banning her from eating chocolate.

While Emi’s narrative becomes more engrossing as the story progresses and she realises exactly what she has sacrificed, the early chapters are a little slow. Her world is fascinating, but her movements are incredibly restricted and she us unable to go anywhere unless accompanied by her bodyguards. This means that it takes almost 100 pages for the plot to actually feel as though it was truly starting to get moving.

Although the stakes are high for Emi and there is a sense of urgency in the novel, this is not always felt in the pacing of the story. While Red Winter is always well written and I certainly never got bored, there was not a lot of action to be found until the end of the tale. Marie also had a bit of a habit of repeating information, with Emi often expositing the same facts to readers over and over.

However, once Red Winter passed its half-way mark, I was certainly hooked. While the story ended on a bit of a cliff-hanger, its exciting climax wrapped up the first stage of Emi’s journey and made it clear what was expected of her in the sequel. It also left a lot of the villain’s motivation unexplained, making me want to read on to find out exactly what it is that they are planning.

The main protagonists in Red Winter were very bold and memorable. While Emi seemed almost painfully naive at first, this was clearly a product of her upbringing and she really grew as a person as the story progressed. However, my one small criticism of her was that I would have liked for her to show a little more independence. Emi is always relying on someone else for protection in the story, despite being a decent archer. Hopefully, this will be an area that she can develop in the sequel.

Shiro also made for a fantastic male lead, with a mysterious backstory and tricksy personality. He brought a lot of heart to the story and uncovering his forgotten past is a great hook for the next instalment. I also liked the way that the romance in the story built, as this was slow burning and never truly blossomed into anything solid. The seeds are clearly there for a relationship to form between Emi and Shiro later in the series.

However, the one thing that I would have liked to see in the story were more female characters. Emi’s circle of close friends is all male and all of them act as her protectors at various stages of her adventure. The few female characters only really have superficial roles, ranging from a jealous shrine miko to a carefree school girl who exists purely to smuggle Emi into town in one chapter. It would have been nice to see these characters fleshed out more and hopefully this will be rectified in a future instalment.

So, all in all, Red Winter is a really strong start to the series, with a beautiful setting and memorable characters. I can’t wait to see where Marie will take the story from here.

Red Winter can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

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