James Hetley,
The Winter Oak
(Ace, 2004)

Sisters Jo and Maureen learned in The Summer Country that they are fey, Old Ones with powers far beyond anything they ever dreamed of in their gloomy Maine town. They learned how to cross the borders between here and Avalon, the magical but certainly not bucolic homeland of their kind. They -- with the aide of Brian, a gifted immortal warrior, and David, an unimposing mortal songwriter -- met foes, faced down a variety of dangers and treacheries, and emerged heroic victors over tremendous odds.

But don't count on "happily ever after" sequels when James Hetley wields the pen.

In The Winter Oak, the sisters are still dealing with the physical and emotional aftershocks of their actions. They are struggling to cope with innate magical abilities that, until recently, they didn't believe existed. They are battling the specters of their unhappy pasts and falling into the depths of alcoholism -- even as they unwittingly drive their closest allies and lovers away.

The plot here is slow to get moving, uncoiling at a leisurely pace as the dark witch Fiona patiently licks her wounds, plans her revenge and twists those around her into tortured instruments of her evil. Khe'sha, an unusually compassionate and intelligent dragon, aches for vengeance on the one who slew his mate and left a nestful of hatchlings without a mother. And the Pendragons, descended from the famed king and his meddlesome wizard, are not as incorruptible as Brian once believed.

The Winter Oak is a dark contemporary fantasy, intricately crafted and plotted down to the tiniest detail. The characters reveal themselves completely to readers, hiding nothing as Hetley digs deeply into their psyches and exposes their frailties and insecurities along with their strengths. Curses have tremendous power, and anyone with even a small trace of conscience must reel at the burden of a weapon so easily misused; Jo and Maureen are overwhelmed by the possibilities of abuse, as well as the guilt for steps that were perhaps wrongly taken.

Set both in Avalon and Maine, the story successfully straddles both worlds. Witches and dragons contend for space with parents and police, while blood-sucking hedges pose no more threat than unpaid bills and missed paychecks back home. An unborn child faces a dire future.

The story itself proceeds at a leisurely jog, never feeling rushed, at times feeling burdened with an immense weight -- and yet, amazingly, it never plods or drags its feet. The prose is rich and heavy with language: prosaic, poetic and certainly not intended for young children's eyes.

The Winter Oak is an earthy adult fantasy novel that builds on a complex new environment and an exciting set of possibilities. Hetley has created a winning series that certainly deserves further development.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 8 January 2005

Buy it from Amazon.com.