Wintersteel carries the burden of closing a significant arc in the Cradle series while also having to incorporate heavy backstory elements with ongoing politics and engaging action. From the heightened stakes of the Uncrowned King Tournament, to the history of the Sage of the Endless Sword, and Lindon’s own struggle to find his place after being eliminated from the tournament, Wintersteel was set up to be ambitious. It carried it better than I expected, and found myself heavily invested in both the characters and the progressing story, to some extent far more than in previous books. And yet, despite all it does so well and with all of its promise, it still managed to sour towards the end, leaving me both disappointed and unsatisfied.
Wintersteel is the longest of the Cradle books, and by some margin. I went into it carrying the expectations after having it be recommended as a favorite in the series by a friend. It was also noted to be the climactic point in the Uncrowned King Tournament arc before the story begins to head towards the final arc in the last books. The book begins with a rising focus on Yerin’s story and that of the Sage of the Endless Sword. During the final rounds of the tournament, Yerin is trained by the Winter Sage, and their dynamic is loaded with emotion and tension, due to both of their complicated relationships with Adama. There is also Yerin’s internal growth, though it manifests externally, in the development of her Blood Shadow. As the Shadow eventually manifests as Ruby, who is at the same time both her own person and a reflection of Yerin, the balance of a person accepting their Shadow is beautifully illustrated.
The arrival of a messenger of the Abidan at the end of Uncrowned upends the already tenuous dynamic of the tournament when he declares a great gift is to be bestowed upon the victor of the tournament, an arrow that can instantly end a life. Immediate politicking and underhanded dealings emerge as the Monarchs all recognize how powerful this artifact is, and what it could mean to effortlessly remove a powerful rival. Lindon’s experience in Wintersteel is defined through the lens of watching three of his closest friends advance in the tournament while he is excluded. Eithan, Mercy, and Yerin all advance to gain the title of Uncrowned by reaching the final sixteen competitors. His internal journey is explored as he watches from the outside, the first time “failing” in a task he set before himself as so important to his greater task.
Yerin’s journey was the best part of this book, potentially the best part of Cradle, and by far the part I was the most invested in. It’s all about personal growth and that growth coming independent of anyone and everyone else. Her Overlady revelation points her back to herself, and away from trying to imitate her former master. Her integration with Ruby, pushed by desperation of being unable to manifest an Icon and become a Sage, instead becoming an Overlord Herald at the sacrifice of losing touch with her Sword Icon is an immense step forward as a character. It is character development that is accentuated by the climax of the Uncrowned King Tournament, a beautifully fitting backdrop.
Her whole journey is then immediately trivialized two chapters later when Lindon manifests his own Icon. Yerin’s entire journey and character arc has been centered around her Blood Shadow, and manifested in her drive to succeed her master and carry on his legacy. Her story through Cradle has been that of self-realization, separating herself from the Sage, and allowing herself not to be beholden to the wishes or expectations of anyone else. This is crystallized for her in her Overlady revelation. It is beautifully symbolized by her integration with Ruby, her acceptance of this darker, more visceral reflection of herself, in order to defeat Sophara in the tournament. It results in Yerin’s effortless victory, and a power in her becoming more of herself, but at the cost of losing touch with her elusive Icon. It is a growth that results in her becoming an Overlord Herald, something unheard of in that world. Yerin gives up the pursuit of manifesting her Icon, giving up on the pursuit of keeping her master’s legacy alive, in order to fully integrate her Shadow.
That beautiful sacrifice and growth is a massive stage in Yerin’s character development, and then when Lindon manifests his own Icon, seemingly from nowhere, it all feels very cheap in light of Yerin’s journey and all that is meant. She did so much, fought so hard, and had to give up that very personal dream of hers in order to find her own path. And Lindon all of a sudden succeeds on the path she has dedicated most of her life to, and he does so nearly effortlessly and without warning. The juxtaposition of her sacrifice and his immediate manifestation of an Icon feels poorly timed at best, and narratively wrong at worst.
For all the ambition of Wintersteel, it did a much better job of sticking the landing than I expected. The Uncrowned King Tournament was given a proper and satisfying conclusion, and balanced the meta story with the ongoing narrative extremely well compared to how the author carried the two through previous books. But once again, it was disheartening to see such great characters and narrative aspects sacrificed in the name of Wight’s final end goal. To see Yerin’s long awaited and beautifully executed character growth almost trivialized by Lindon’s favored growth as the hero of the story immediately left a sour taste in my mouth. When Lindon is the only character that seems to get satisfying and independent successes, and time and time again gets to stand out amongst his allies, it makes me lose hope for the rest of the series that has such potential for both the world of Cradle and the other characters.
Wintersteel is written by Will Wight, and is published by Hidden Gnome Publishing.
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