“The barbarians weren’t going to silence her. … While she still sang, the Resistance wasn’t giving up. You’d have thought that hope depended on her voice.”
(from Winter’s End, page 207)
Winter’s End is a young adult dystopian novel by Jean-Claude Mourlevat, translated from the French by Anthea Bell, and our book club’s April pick, nominated by The Girl (age 12). It focuses on four teenagers who reside in prison-like boarding schools in a country ruled by the tyrannical Phalange. Their only respite is an occasional visit to their consolers, villagers who serve as confidants and are pretty much the only parents they’ve ever known.
When the novel opens, Helen is feeling particularly low and desperate to meet with her consoler. She takes her best friend, Milena, with her to the village, and on the way, they meet Bartolomeo and Milos from the boys’ school. This chance meeting changes their lives, igniting a desire to be free and to fight against the government that destroyed their families. They also get a taste of what it feels like to be in love. Bart and Milena run away despite the fact that two of their fellow classmates will be punished in their place. They are immediately drawn to one another, their shared pasts sparking a journey in which Milena’s beautiful singing voice could be their saving grace and something pure to unite the masses. Meanwhile, Helen and Milos go off in search of their friends, who are being tracked by an evil police chief and a pack of bloodthirsty dog-men.
In Winter’s End, Mourlevat takes readers on an adventure complete with barbaric games, giant horse-men, and a back story of obsession and revenge. It’s a fast-paced, very readable book, but The Girl and I longed for more. Who were the Phalange, and why did they feel a need to take over the government? It was difficult to feel completely invested in their fight for freedom without knowing exactly what they were fighting against. It was also hard to connect with the main characters because they were pretty flat, with the exception of Milos. The Girl and I both loved Milos; he was not only strong and fearless but also a romantic and gentle soul. As for the others, Helen is likeable but seems to act only when she has to and is absent from the major action. We’re supposed to view Bart as a leader, but he seems to be pretty weak in that regard, simply benefiting from his father’s reputation as a Resistance leader. And Milena…The Girl couldn’t stand her because she was portrayed as perfect, with everyone fawning over her and her voice, and it got annoying after awhile.
However, there was plenty to like about this novel as well. I love that it’s a standalone book, not part of a series or trilogy. (The Girl disagrees with me on that point; she thinks it would have made a great trilogy if there were more details about the Phalange, the political coup, and the teens’ parents and a better build up to the revolution.) Despite our issues with the character development, they seemed to be realistic teens in their impulsive decisions and the intense feelings of first love. And we liked that these characters had the courage to stand up for what they believe is right, even though it could cost them their lives.
Overall, Winter’s End was an enjoyable novel. The writing wasn’t spectacular, but the story was intriguing. There were some exciting, edge-of-your-seat scenes, and while there was a lot of violence, it wasn’t overly graphic. The Girl liked it more than I did, but she’s also the target audience for this book.
Book Club Discussion (beware of possible spoilers)
The Eclectic Bookworms seemed to enjoy the book, with most of us rating it 3 out of 5 stars. We thought it was the best written of the YA novels we’ve read as a group so far, particularly better than Ashes and Shadows by Ilsa J. Bick. Some of us found it hard to believe that one girl’s voice could spark a revolution, but it made more sense to others if the book was indeed set in France. (I’m not up on my French history, so not exactly sure why they thought that.) We talked about the numerous coincidences, particularly Bart and Milena’s chance meeting given their entwined pasts, and the many scenes where we had to suspend disbelief, like when the police chief (who’s supposed to be an expert hunter) makes an obnoxiously stupid mistake and gets himself killed early on in the book. With that scene in particular, some of us thought it seemed like the author didn’t know how to get Helen and Milos out of the impossible situation they were in on the mountain.
Some of us were disappointed by the anticlimactic ending and the unnecessary epilogue, and some of us also wanted a more developed and detailed back story. Some of us even saw some similarities to The Hunger Games when it came to the scenes with the gladiator games. I was especially surprised that some members wished it had been a trilogy, with the first book focusing on the boarding school, the second on the gladiator games, and the third on the revolution. I seemed to be in the minority in wanting maybe a longer book, but just one book.
Our book for May is The Last Van Gogh by Alyson Richman. I’m really excited about this one because Richman’s The Lost Wife made my Best of 2011 list! The Girl and I are only about seven chapters in, but we’re enjoying it so far.
If you’ve read Winter’s End, what did you think? Please let me know in the comments!
Disclosure: I borrowed Winter’s End from my daughter.
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