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Review: ‘Once Upon a Winter’s Night’ by Dennis L. McKiernan

February 17, 2015

Summary: Camille lives with her large family in a creaky old house on the edge of a forest. With a disposition as sweet as honey and good-natured as sunshine, Camille is her father’s most beloved daughter. She works hard to help her family maintain a living and nothing magical has ever happened to her, or anyone else she knows. One day, an enormous white bear emerges from the woods and knocks on their door with a message . . . Camille was to leave immediately with the Bear and travel into the magical world of Faery to be the betrothed and eventually wife of the Prince of the Summerwood, as long as her family accepted the offer. Camille, sad to leave her father and brother but determined to help her family with the prince’s promised dowry payments, Camille sets off with the Bear on a journey that will change her life.

But there’s a catch. The Prince cannot reveal his face to Camille. She is not to see his face at all, for if he does, something dire will happen. Will Camille trust the prince and let his face remain hidden? Or will she give in to curiosity and ruin all?

My Thoughts: Once Upon a Winter’s Night is a retelling of the old fairy tale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon“. Another iteration of the story was the movie “The Polar Bear King”. There is a strong French flavor in this book, in language, traditions, and setting, which sets up an interesting mix between the real and the imagined as some of this is carried into the magical realm as well, mainly the language.

Camille is the main character and the hero of the story. It’s up to her to make decisions, to survive the long trip between her home country and Faery, and to trust Prince Alain and not look at his face for an entire year. But Camille is flawed–she’s too easily swayed by her family at times, and allows her curiosity to get the better of her. She doesn’t trust the prince enough and causes horrible ramifications. This causes her to go on yet another journey in which she learns more about Faery and herself. What happens to her is heartbreaking and there are times when you want to scream at her because she’s making a mistake and the result of her mistake is terrible and sad.

Prince Alain comes across as your typical fairy tale prince: he’s charming, intelligent, handsome, and a prince of a magical land. He loves Camille for her beauty but also her kind heart and her cleverness. He is a little frustrating though, because for most of the book he asks Camille to trust him without really giving her solid reasons why. Of course, there is a reason why he can’t be completely forthcoming with Camille, but the reader doesn’t know the reason for a long time.

There are other side characters which pop up throughout the story to help Camille on her travels. All of these characters are delightful. Some are mysterious and wise and very cool. Camille is the lead character and everything is from her perspective; aside from the prince, the Bear, Camille’s family and a few friends, it’s all Camille.

The plot was interesting and I very much enjoyed the story as a whole. There were a few moments when I thought the pacing was a little slow–sometimes the traveling got a little tedious to me. The romance between Alain and Camille became convincing, and the drama associated with some of Camille’s choices was good enough to grab me emotionally.

The ending was very emotionally satisfying. It does wrap up in a sort of happily ever after ending, but there’s enough of a lead-in to the second book that the reader knows there’s more to the overall story and all may not be well for long. This book can be read as a standalone with no problems, and most of the books in this series are like that except the last one, which has built on the previous four books and wraps up the overall plot McKiernan starts in Winter’s Night.

If you’re looking for a book with mystery, romance, danger, and travel, this may be a good read for you. However, if you dislike the traditional storytelling style, which McKiernan employs to great effect, you may want to reconsider. My opinion is that this style works really well, especially given McKiernan’s considerable talent. He makes it work well.

Although this book is based off of fairy tales, I do not recommend it for readers under the age of 16 or so due to the inclusion of adult events and themes throughout the series. In my opinion, this is solidly set in the adult fantasy category.

Overall, I give it 5 stars. It’s engaging, very well-written, and has a high re-readability factor.

Find on Amazon * Author Info * GoodReads * Shelfari

Book info: published 2001, 413 pages, ISBN 0451458540

Copy is from my personal library.

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 18, 2015 4:15 PM

    The only books I’ve read by Dennis L. McKiernan is his Iron Tower books, read many years ago. They are a very close reflection of Tolkien’s works (Lord of the Rings), but still enjoyable.

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