This was a mildly frustrating read, and depending on what you’re looking for in your fantasy romance this may or may not be for you. In premise it’s relatively similar to Queen Of Ieflaria or Of Fire and Stars: a woman of royal heritage is expecting to marry a male royal of another country, but the person they’re expecting to marry is unexpectedly killed and in order to maintain international relations, the person next in line (female in all these instances) takes the dead relative’s place. I am an absolute sucker for this premise because there’s lots of court intrigue, a murder mystery and/or conspiracy, the sexual tension of an arranged marriage, the romance where the two characters have to start by distrusting each other for that sweet sweet enemies to lovers dynamic – it’s the whole package. Add a dash of magic (in this case that’s pearls giving magical powers harvested in the underwater city Below the ice, for trade with the country Above) and you have to work quite hard for me not to pick up what you’re putting down.
And yet that still sort of happened this time. The Winter Duke is slightly different from the two cited examples in that it is written completely from the newly crowned sister’s (Ekaterina or Ekata) perspective and it doesn’t include any chapters written from the point of view of the foreign royal (Inkar) who is suddenly forced to switch horses in the middle of the race (this is a pun because Inkar is a self-confessed Horse Girl). This leaves out valuable insight on court mechanics that the main character might not be partial to, especially as Inkar seems to be much more politically savvy than Ekata – who spent most of her life so far ignoring her murderous siblings and instead diving into scientific studies.
This tendency for ignoring obvious issues and escapism doesn’t serve Ekata well, as she still has to complete four trials in order to be officially recognised as the ruler of the country. Her modus operandi seems to be to pretty much tune out all the advice from her prime minister, completely ignore or actively antagonise her other ministers, and when it all gets to be too much, simply nope out completely by visiting the country Below and trying to figure out how the magic works. While ostentatiously this behaviour could all be the result of a healthy distrust due to her whole family being put under a sleeping curse, her motivations generally read more as panicked teenager. Which is fair! She is a teenager with good reason to be panicked! But it’s not the most intriguing character journey, in my opinion. She keeps pivoting between deciding to actually try to win the trials and set up the country with a solid rule, and then switching back to not doing anything and/or doing the wrong thing – and then never learning from any of the many mistakes she makes in the process.
The constant back and forth between those positions becomes repetitive and boring quite quickly, so the court intrigue and ‘murder’ mystery elements of the plot are not as successful for me (especially because I identified a major player in the conspiracy halfway through the book). That means it has to lean more on the fantasy and romance elements. The worldbuilding here is super cool, with the underwater court and court Above divided by a thick layer of ice, but the magic system seems overly convoluted and confusing: we are told what it can do, but the how and why remain secret for a long time.
The romance is where the book finds most solid ground. Inkar is a very different personality from Ekata, very no-nonsense and a go-getter, while still capable of playing all the political games. Ekata is in a slightly impossible position, where marrying Inkar is not necessarily her best political play (according to most of her advisers), but to her it’s preferable to the alternative of marrying the one other character (male, and thus not ‘the right gender’ for Ekata) vying for the position of royal consort. This puts her in the position of having to walk a fine line between annoying Inkar out of the engagement while not putting herself in the position of becoming available to the Guy. This makes for a very unstable bedrock to her relationship with Inkar, which in turns makes for a fun relationship dynamic between the two where they both use each other and the connection between them to their own benefit. There’s fantastic friction, and the growing emotions between the two feel naturally paced.
The romance is by far the strongest element of this story, but it remains only one element among many, and under-utilised at that. The court Below, the court Above, the mystery surrounding the sleeping curse, the coronation trials, the rival Guy vying for the throne: there are just a few too many spinning plates to be kept in the air, so in the end there isn’t enough plot available to flesh all of them out enough to be satisfying as a whole.
Content warnings: death, confinement, violence, murder, sexism, sexual harassment, near-death experience