Dennis McKiernan,
Once Upon a Winter's Night
(Roc, 2001)

Dennis McKiernan retells the folk tale "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" with a romantic flair in Once Upon a Winter's Night.

A poor crofter, his wife, six daughters and sickly young son huddle for warmth in their one-room cottage as a snowstorm rages outside. There is a knock at the door, and when the door is opened, the caller is a huge white bear. At first fearful, the youngest daughter, Camille, approaches the creature and finds that he carries a letter from Prince Alain of Summerwood in Faery, who expresses a desire to wed Camille. The family is assured a steady flow of wealth if she acquiesces, which, under duress, she does.

After an arduous journey, during which she encounters goblins and a vicious troll king, she arrives at Summerwood and takes her place as the lady of the realm, guided by the servants who are friendly and pleasant. She sees Alain only in the evening, and he wears a mask he may not remove except in the dark -- but other than that, Camille is charmed by his wit, his intellect and later, his passion. But after a visit home, Camille is persuaded to succumb to the temptation to light a candle and look at his face. He vanishes, along with all the people. Camille begins the long journey not only to find Alain but to rescue him as well.

McKiernan uses descriptive language with a formal and somewhat archaic tone that is consistent and suits the narrative overall. At times, the descriptions are minute, right down to the shade of Camille's stockings, which will appeal to readers who enjoy a more leisurely pace. Characterizations seems to take a back seat here; many of the characters are two-dimensional and can be described in a few words: Camille and Alain are good and perfect; Camille's mother and oldest sister are grasping and selfish; her father is weak and loving; the troll family is ugly and repulsive. Interestingly enough, the white bear seems to have the best developed character of all. Still, the characterizations are true to their fairy tale roles, and Camille does grow and become more independent and confident as a result of her travails.

The stately pace of the novel may discourage some readers, but others will surely savor it. If you're looking for a good curl-up-with-a-hot-beverage book for a gloomy day, Once Upon a Winter's Night is just the thing.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]
Rambles: 13 April 2002

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