The Ring of Winter

Author: James Lowder
Published: November 1992

Author James Lowder set himself a staggeringly difficult task: to write a pulp jungle exploration novel in the vein of H. Rider Haggard‘s King Solomon’s Mines or Arthur Conan Doyle‘s The Lost World without falling into a fetid morass of tired colonialist and racist tropes. Is it even possible to write a story of lost cities, dark jungles, and cannibal natives in our modern era without being anachronistic and offensive?

Apparently so. The Ring of Winter navigates some tricky cultural rapids with aplomb, largely succeeding in crafting an entertaining story while keeping only the core elements, but not the accompanying attitudes, of the works which inspired it. Let’s see how.

The “lost world” genre was a style of fiction that flourished around the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Early Western speculative fiction writers set their stories in remote places where pockets of ancient civilizations had survived all the way up to the modern day, isolated from the rest of the world by geographical accident or deliberate obfuscation. Adventurers from Europe would explore dark jungles, remote mountaintops, or subterranean caverns, stumble upon this civilization, grapple with the social differences between the lost civilization and their own, and eventually return bearing riches, wisdom, or scientific discoveries. It spoke to that era’s sense of disappointment that the world was a much smaller place, with few frontiers left to conquer as in the heroic age of European exploration. Authors who wished to write about exotic and magical places had to set them further and further afield as the number of places unfamiliar to Europeans dwindled; medieval writers had no problem placing the kingdom of Prester John in India, for instance, but that became impossible to do in a time when India was swarming with British people. It was an age where the ordinary exotic (places with strange customs and languages, but still just full of ordinary people) had wholly displaced the imaginary exotic (gryphons, giant ants, monopods, etc.), and “lost world” fiction can be seen as part of Western society’s gradual adaptation to that change.

Naturally, any Victorian or Edwardian stories involving Western people meeting foreign cultures are going to be packed with problematic aspects. For a closer look at the inherent issues, let’s pick a particular book as an example: H. Rider Haggard’s She, one of the earliest and most famous books in the genre that has many parallels story-wise to The Ring of Winter. It’s the story of a group of British explorers who penetrate deep into the African jungle and discover a tribe of superstitious natives ruled by an immortal white woman with magical abilities. In the process, we see plenty of:

  • Racism: The portrayals of the African natives cover a broad range of awfulness. The “good” natives, like the friendly chieftain Billali, are superstitious but good-hearted savages with a primitive culture — yet even the best of them possess a “native indifference and selfishness of temperament”, and are dismissively described as “these savages who lack imagination.” The worst of them are outright cannibal monsters with “an aspect of cold and sullen cruelty” who attempt to kill and eat one of the party members, and have to be shot by the Europeans. All of them are portrayed as the Europeans’ inferiors in education, culture, and wisdom.
  • Misogyny: The native women have greater freedom: they can choose their own mates and boldly kiss and embrace men in public as a means of staking their claim. Yet this is seen as a sort of licentiousness by the European narrator, and the Western characters are shocked by their behaviour. The only noteworthy female character in the book (the titular “She-who-must-be-obeyed”) is imperious, cruel, and mad as a sack of feral ferrets.
  • Colonialism: The Europeans are there to discover the ancient civilization which once lived there and learn its secrets. The current native civilization, which they consider primitive and debased, is of no interest to them. (And even that’s ruled by a white person.)

On the surface, The Ring of Winter has much in common with She: a pair of white, educated Cormyrian explorers hear rumours of a fabulous artifact deep in the jungles of Chult, then travel there and find a thriving lost city of natives ruled by immortals. Thankfully, the two couldn’t be more different in attitude:

  • Racism: The “good” natives here are easily the equal of the protagonists in every respect: they have an ancient and powerful civilization, vast libraries full of knowledge, and a distinct culture with interesting internal conflicts. When Artus reaches the lost city of Mezro, he’s a bewildered yokel who stumbles around and makes an ass of himself rather than being the suave ambassador of a superior society. Furthermore, Ubtao, the city’s tutelary deity, will accept people of any race to be his champions. The role of cannibal monsters here, as one would expect from a Dungeons & Dragons novel, is played by actual cannibal monsters: a tribe of man-eating goblins, none too bright yet still dangerous in large groups. I’ve discussed my mixed feelings about D&D’s implicit racism towards the “cannon fodder” species a couple of times before — it’s a necessary weasel for the tabletop game, but makes telling stories with nuanced morality more difficult — yet it’s still miles better than casting native humans as the monstrous man-eaters.
  • Misogyny: As is typical in the Forgotten Realms, women are treated no differently than men. Three of the barae, the seven immortal protectors of Mezro, are women.
  • Colonialism: The Ring of Winter‘s take on it is summed up perfectly by this exchange:

“Mezro?” Artus managed to gasp. “I discovered the lost city of Mezro?”

Rayburton’s gentle laughter filled the library. “It’s hardly lost to the people who have lived here for four thousand years,” he noted. “But if you want to put it that way, the Mezroans probably won’t mind. I said the same thing when I stumbled across the place, and they haven’t thrown me out yet.”

Glancing at this comparison, an uncharitable person might assume that The Ring of Winter is a “politically correct” take on the lost-world paradigm, with all the unfortunate implications sanded off to make something blandly safe that won’t offend anyone, but won’t inspire anyone either. I didn’t find that to be the case at all, because none of the racism, misogyny, or colonialism in the early lost-world works were really inherent to the genre itself. The only elements you need for a good lost-world story are a mystery (lost city, mystical mumbo-jumbo, etc.), a threat (dinosaurs, cannibals, etc.), and an isolated, unexplored location (jungle, remote mountain, etc.). Everything else is just the trappings of the society which produced the story.

Plot

The whole “jungles and lost cities” aesthetic of The Ring of Winter is a welcome change of pace from the usual “Western Europe but with some pointy-eared people” pseudo-medieval fantasy that’s usually standard for Realms novels — and for fantasy novels generally, in fact. This book signals the new tone immediately with an initial scene right out of Raiders of the Lost Ark: a dangerous idol on a pedestal in a ruin. Two Cormyrian treasure hunters are searching for the titular ring, a fabulous artifact of unimaginable power, and gather from the ravings of a dying man that it might be in the mysterious jungles of Chult. They endure a difficult sea voyage there, are pursued by old enemies, get lost in the jungle, and stumble upon the mythical city of Mezro. But they’ve brought powerful enemies to Mezro’s doorstep in the process, and have to defend the city while they uncover the truth about the Ring of Winter.

I’ll try to avoid spoiling the plot too much, as is my wont for the better books I review. It’s a delightfully twisty tale, though, where all the major players know some subset of the story, but they don’t communicate well and nobody has all the answers until Artus finally puts all the pieces together in the end. That sort of partial knowledge, where none of the characters are completely in the loop and the reader has to keep track of who knows what, seems common to many of my favourite Realms novels thus far. It requires a deft touch by the author to avoid giving too much away at once, and coming up with reasons why characters haven’t shared knowledge encourages the author to develop good backstories and characterizations. (But it’s no spoiler to point out that, as usual, whenever you see a utopian city full of happy people in fiction, you know for a fact that it’ll be either partially or wholly wrecked by the end of the story. Nothing could be more inevitable.)

I appreciate that the time spent travelling to Chult is given plenty of narrative space; it reminds the reader that Faerûn is a vast place and that voyages like this are full of danger. The unexplored jungle of Chult wouldn’t be very mysterious if it were right next door, after all. It’s certainly much better than the opening to The Night Parade, where one chapter ends in Cormyr and the next chapter begins in Calimport, 1,200 miles away, and the trip is barely even mentioned.

Themes

How far are you willing to go for your goals? Artus and Kaverin, the villain, are both pursuing the same ludicrously powerful magical artifact. Artus was once one of the good guys, an idealistic Harper, but has succumbed to cynicism and become more morally flexible over the course of his decade-long quest. Will he manage to uphold his ideals in his pursuit of the Ring of Winter, or will he decide that the ends justify the means and become as ruthless as Kaverin? And if Artus finds it first, will he end up as another tragic example of “absolute power corrupts absolutely”? I think it works reasonably well; you know that TSR isn’t going to publish any Greek tragedies, but Artus’ cynicism and world-weariness is convincingly portrayed, and we see how his behaviour causes other people to worry that he’s jumping off the slippery slope.

Isolationism is another theme that runs through the book, but it doesn’t really get the space it deserves. The people of Mezro are living in a comfortable bubble of advanced civilization, magically hidden from the outside world, but the other jungle-dwelling natives are left at the mercy of monsters and foreign oppressors. Some of the Mezroans want to lower their barriers and help the other Chultans; others fear that doing so would jeopardize the city’s existence. It’s an interesting conundrum that’s not morally black-and-white, but we don’t hear enough of the opposing viewpoints or see the misery of the ordinary Chultans, so the reader doesn’t get much chance or reason to care about this socially significant issue. It’s instructional to compare The Ring of Winter with the 2018 movie Black Panther; both use the same theme of defensive isolationism versus altruism, but in Black Panther the isolationism dilemma is deeply tied into the plot and motivates nearly all the characters in one way or another, so the viewer is forced to confront it. Here it feels like a social issue that’s entirely unrelated to the protagonist or his journey — somebody else’s problem, in other words. A pity, really.

Characters

Artus Cimber, our protagonist, is a character who wobbles on the line between hero and anti-hero: an Indiana Jones-style two-fisted adventure archaeologist, but with a moral greyness that Jones never had. At the outset of the book he’s jaded and tired, having spent years obsessively struggling towards a goal which he now seems to pursue only out of a bloody-minded determination to prevent his rival from succeeding. By the end of the book, he’s done a great deal of self-discovery in the course of a reasonably well-done character arc. He’s just prickly and arrogant enough that you don’t get comfortable with him as a viewpoint character, but he’s human enough that you empathize with him regardless. I appreciate how fallible he is; he makes mistakes and is often foiled by bad luck or his foes’ stratagems, but he keeps struggling regardless.

Kaverin Ebonhand, the antagonist of this piece, is one of the most fun villains we’ve seen in a long time. He’s basically a James Bond villain in every way: the leader of a sinister secret organization (the Cult of Frost) with an iconic disfigurement (hands cut off and replaced with magical stone hands), a female sidekick with a ludicrously sexist name (“Phyrra al-Quim,” seriously, what the hell, buddy), and an attitude of sneering superiority. But he’s also got everything I like to see in a good villain: he’s practical, ruthless, smart, and has very good motivations for his actions. The threat of eternal damnation drives him to increasingly bloody lengths to secure some sort of immortality by any means necessary, and once you see what his life is like, you actually feel a tiny bit of sympathy for him. He’s a black-hearted villain, but a somewhat tragic one, and it’s genuinely satisfying to see him get his comeuppance in the end. He’s got many years of backstory and old grudges with Artus and Pontifax which tie into the story, making them all feel like real people with real histories.

I’ll venture into some mild spoilers here: Pontifax, Artus’ longtime treasure-hunting companion, has the best character death that I’ve seen in a while. Narratively, his purpose is to die tragically at the villain’s hands to motivate the protagonist. Many authors would do this with a red shirt character: someone who we’re told is important to the protagonist before they’re bumped off early on to kick-start the story. You have a scene of “alas, poor what’s-his-name,” then the hero accepts the call to adventure. Pontifax, on the other hand, gets two-fifths of a book worth of character development to establish his character and his relationship with Artus. You get to see his bravery, sympathy, avuncular manner, and genuine concern for Artus first-hand, and are just getting used to having him around when he’s suddenly offed — and what was looking like a buddy road trip story immediately turns serious. When he died I unexpectedly felt a tiny twinge somewhere within my blackened, shrivelled heart. The lesson here is once again “show, don’t tell.” It’s not enough just to demonstrate that the protagonist cares about the dead character; you have to spend time making the reader care about them too.

Lord Rayburton, a former explorer turned bara, feels like a deliberate criticism of the colonialist protagonists of early lost-world stories. Like Artus, he’s a Cormyrian who came to Chult expecting to find an uncivilized wasteland. Instead he found Mezro much more civilized and pleasant than the Heartlands, decided to stay for the next several hundred years, and now regrets the racist and small-minded attitudes of the books he wrote earlier in his career. Think of him as the anthromorphic personification of the genre’s evolution, if you will.

Byrt and Lugg are easily my second- and third-favourite fictional talking wombats. [1] Their working-class British accents and deadpan comedy feel woefully out of place in this two-fisted pulp adventure, but they’re entertaining and take the piss out of how deadly serious Artus is. Without them following him around it would be a grimmer and duller book, since Artus really needs a chorus to keep the story grounded and provide a less dramatic and obsessive perspective on events.

The barae of Mezro are an interesting lot. I love that they’re not a Justice League-style bunch of super-powered do-gooders, but rather a fractious group of individuals with internecine conflicts. They all have the same goal in mind — preserve and protect the city of Mezro — but they’ve got drastically different perspectives on how to do so. Most of them toe the party line and follow the king. Ras T’fima fervently disagrees with the others on ethical grounds, voluntarily exiling himself over the argument about Mezro abandoning its policy of isolationism. Ras Nsi is a straight-up evil overlord who believes that the ends justify the means. All the other barae think he’s a bloodthirsty madman when they consider the oceans of blood he’s shed to protect the city, but he’s not — he’s just pursuing the same goal with a very different set of morals. It would have been so easy to write this as “six superheroes and a supervillain,” but the story is much better off for the extra care put into their characterizations.

The people of Mezro are a refreshing alternative to the savage tribes of most lost-world stories. They’re cultured and intelligent, without a trace of superstition or subservience. We don’t get as many glimpses of their culture as I’d like, but the customs and history that we do see are interesting. They’ve got a complex, idiosyncratic language that Artus struggles mightily to learn, which helps sell the “isolated lost city” theme and makes them feel more like a real society. (Characters who master a new language in a matter of days or weeks are a serious pet peeve of mine; it just reeks of the author getting bored of having to deal with language issues and punting on the problem altogether.) It’s a surprising shame that, after this, it would take twenty-five years for Mezro to make another appearance in the Forgotten Realms canon.

Writing

Remarkably good, actually! The setting work is very good, in particular the vivid and lush descriptions of the jungle which sell the “not in Kansas any more” feel of the story. The characters are memorable and have distinct voices. The pacing is good, doling out the action in little pieces between scenes of dialogue and exposition instead of dumping it in giant blobs Salvatore-style. I’m hard-pressed to think of anything to complain about.

There’s a number of continuity nods to other Forgotten Realms books like Crusade, Elfshadow, and even a book which hasn’t come out yet but which we’ll get to soon. You don’t have to have read the other books to understand what’s going on, but the little details are a nice touch. The references felt a bit too numerous and unsubtle after a while, though, and I was tired of them by the end.

This pun made me groan in real pain, yet nod in grudging respect. A character is going barefoot in the rigging of a ship:

He’d learned on his first day aboard the ship that his boots were not made for nautical feats.

Bravo, sir.

Conclusion

Grade: A–

I devoured this book; it just seemed to fly by, and I found myself wishing that Lowder had had another hundred pages to work with. The characters are complex, the themes are nuanced and not black-and-white, the setting is lush, and the writing is snappy. It’s no masterpiece, mind you — it’s derivative of other works in a lot of ways and drops one of its more important themes on the floor — but I’ll always give higher marks to novels that deviate from the usual fantasy template to try out new themes in new settings. All things considered, it’s far better than it has any right to be. Lowder is definitely going on my list of authors whose books I look forward to, along with Grubb/Novak and Elaine Cunningham.

Footnotes

[1] The first being, of course, Digger-of-Unnecessarily-Convoluted-Tunnels from the Hugo award-winning Digger. Highly recommended.

2 Replies to “The Ring of Winter

  1. I really liked the breakdown of the lost world genre at the top of this review, both the exploration of why the genre happened and also why it’s hard to do now. Very good contextualizing without oversimplification.

    1. Glad you liked it! I couldn’t think how to break down my thoughts about this novel without going into all that background first. I went into it expecting a colonialist tire fire of some variety — the half-naked tribesman on the cover didn’t inspire a lot of confidence. But then I was very pleasantly surprised, and then I had to find a way to describe why I was so surprised and why the surprise was so pleasant, and then I ended up reading a couple of other books and writing nearly 4,000 words. Sorry for the delay!

      The next book is our first anthology, so I’m not sure if that will make me take less time or more. We’ll see!

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