Welcome to the Semi-Final stage of SPFBO 9! As you know, we already cut 24 books from our batch of 30 and announced our semi-finalists. Check out our SPFBO 9 page for more info! In the next few weeks, we’ll post group reviews of each semi-finalist, and then we’ll reveal our finalist on October 18th, all going well.
Our 4th SPFBO 9 semi-finalist review is for A Dagger in the Winds by Brendan Noble. The order of the reviews within a post will be the following: first is the person who picked the book as a semi-finalist, and then the others in alphabetical order.
A quick reminder about how we are proceeding in the Semi-Finals: our judges had the freedom to opt out of reading any of the books due to personal interest, time restrictions, unforeseen life events, etc. Our aim is to have at least 4 reviews/scores for each semi-finalist.
Both in the Semi-Final and Final stages we’ll have a DNF rule in place: if a judge reads a book (either semi-finalist or finalist if they didn’t opt out beforehand), they have to read at least 25% of it. If they decide to DNF between 25%-50% they’ll have to give a score but can opt out of writing a review, and if they DNF after 50% (or not) then also have to score AND write a review.
For A Dagger in the Winds we have 6 reviews and 6 scores for your reading pleasures.
So, without further ado, let’s take a closer look at our 4th semi-finalist!
Table of Contents
|Series:||The Frostmarked Chronicles #1|
|Genre:||Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, Young Adult|
|Date of Publishing:||June 15th, 2021|
A warrior shrouded in darkness. A witch sworn to revenge. A winter unbounded.
Wacław is an outcast. Born with a curse he doesn’t understand, he’s hidden his power his entire life. But when the goddess of winter unleashes the darkness within him, his only hope for answers is the girl he’s forbidden to see.
Otylia is a witch. There’s no one she hates more than the winter goddess—except her once best friend Wacław. But when she receives visions of endless blizzards and Wacław fighting by her side, she realizes he’s the key to uncovering the goddess’s plot.
Facing monsters and magic at every turn, the pair must journey with friends and rivals alike to confront the cult of winter, but Wacław’s awakened darkness grows as death consumes the living realm. To contain it, they’ll have to mend their broken relationship and delve into the mysteries of their past. Mysteries that could destroy the winter goddess . . . or themselves.
In this first book of an epic fantasy series rooted in Slavic mythology, dive into a new world with menacing magic and beasts, scheming gods, a group of allied misfits, and plenty of secrets to uncover.
I’ll admit I was reluctant to read this book. I am of Polish origin and a book based on Polish mythology felt… scary. Fantasy books with “Slavic setting” often range from “I guess this is Slavic now” to borderline offensive. Which would A Dagger in the Winds turn out to be? I procrastinated, postponed, picked other reads, expecting – fearing – the worst…
I owe Brendan Noble an apology. I have never read a book based on Slavic lore that was this good. It felt like a love letter at times. Long, complicated, somewhat discombobulated love letter – but has love ever made any sense?
The worldbuilding in A Dagger in the Winds is immense. I have learned things I have never even heard about. The old, pre-xtian beliefs and Gods are all there, and, like with the Northmen, they walk around us mortals. There are szeptuchy, rusałki, utopce… and that’s a problem that might actually be mine. That’s a lot of Polish words – it sounds strange coming from me, but this made me read slower, since my subconscious sort of kept switching between languages. (I’m extremely curious how non-Slavs feel about it?) The one word I would have definitely changed was not Polish, though. It was “electricity.”
The main characters, Wacław and Otylia, are wonderful, although I wish they would spend less time agonising about, well, a lot of things. How many times can you ask your bestie the same question or evade it? Many, it turns out, and the pacing suffers from that. Their relationship is not quite the sort of relationship you’d expect – I can’t share more without spoilers, but oh boy, if you’re one of those people who say “I don’t like romance in fantasy,” you know nothing about Wacław and Otylia, Jon Snow. Kuba, Wacław’s friend, is a delight, and I would love to learn more about Xobas. Unfortunately, this doesn’t expand to the less important characters, and not just tertiary ones you meet in passing. Ara, Otylia’s best friend, is sort of there. Narcyz (a bit heavy-handed choice of a name here) is the sort of person that only ever opens his mouth to eat or say something nasty. (Wacław is surprised when for one single time Narcyz doesn’t call Otylia “a witch.”) Marek is so expendable I haven’t really noticed when he stopped being around. (Actually, I am not sure whether he was still around at the end…) A Dagger in the Winds is really about Wacław, Otylia, and the Gods, and this is where it shines.
Oh, the Gods. The burning of Marzanna’s effigy, then drowning the remains symbolises the end of winter – but what if Winter is not in the mood to end and captures Dziewanna, the Spring? Does the Summer have an opinion on that? Our protagonists are, obviously, the Chosen Ones – but sometimes being the Chosen One is not a good thing, especially when you get punished for refusing to do the bad thing. A friend of mine says that in monotheist religions the believers want to be noticed by their gods, and in the polytheist ones they do everything not to be noticed, and he’s right. Those Gods are sociopaths and if there’s something they want from you, you’re fu– unlucky. I have no idea whether the swords Jaryło carries, one for each month, are Noble’s original idea or something from the actual lore, but I loved it. I never felt I was being given a lecture, it was a plethora of wonders. In retrospect, I feel really stupid for thinking A Dagger in the Winds wouldn’t deliver.
Something I was not fond of was the political subplot, which was so sub- that even the characters sometimes seemed to forget why exactly they were on their journey. This is not to say that I’d know how to do it better, since somehow it was both necessary and superfluous. It had to be there so the book could be there. Nevertheless, maybe it’s actually because the politics didn’t take over that I have never lost interest while reading A Dagger in the Winds, although sometimes I lost the plot (sorry) (not sorry) and it contributed to the uneven pacing. (That ending felt a bit, as in a lot, too easy.) It never put me off, though, and I was rewarded. I have NOT seen the non-political ending coming. Or anything before the ending, actually.
Plot twists aplenty, one towards the end very unwelcome (I will find you, Noble, and tell you what I thought about that one and you know exactly what I mean). The uneven pacing that makes the book both fast-paced and a slow burn aside, I recommend it to fans of myth-based fantasy that delves into truly uncharted territory… and True Blood.
PS. Marzanna’s effigy is still burnt, then drowned in many communities in Poland to celebrate the end of winter, and inevitably followed by boys jumping over the fires. The Old Gods never truly die. Unless Brendan Noble decides otherwise…
Well I wasn’t too surprised to see A Dagger in the Winds make it to semi-round within our group because Bjorn has been going on and on about how good the lore was for weeks.
I really liked this cover. Very nice colours and art that lend to the idea this story is going to be YA/NA which to me was pretty spot on. This definitely is a coming-of-age tale, with everything that term implies – from falling in love, to learning to move on from the past, to stepping up and doing what’s right – even when it isn’t the easiest choice. And it’s all wrapped up in some seriously cool Slavic lore.
I know so little about Slavic lore and A Dagger in the Winds‘ story and characters are heavily entwined in their beliefs and traditions, so for me, there was a learning curve in getting a feel for the world, the names, etc., and especially knowing which Gods matter enough to remember. I generally take character notes until I reach that point because I don’t know who I will need to remember for later. It can be tiring and slow going for the first little while. Also, because I use my notepad feature on my phone, times like this is when I want to scream in frustration as it auto-corrects everything.
Waclaw is a Frostmarked. His dad is the chief of their tribe, and there were already hard feelings towards one another, so being Frostmarked (which is something his people and their beliefs means he is considered to be a demon) is not going to make that relationship any easier.
Otylia is a szeptucha, considered a witch by their people. She follows Dziewanna the goddess of the wilds.
The story is told in three parts and I’m not going to go into details on characters and plot points because as I said, there is too much lore entwined with their stories, and it would be far easier for you and take less time to just go read the book.
Part one sees the two characters growing into their roles /being chosen and given tasks by their Goddesses, meanwhile, a threat is rising in the east.
Once I settled into the story, I really enjoyed getting to know the characters and the surroundings, their rituals and lifestyle. I did feel the beginning was a bit dense at times, with a lot of names being thrown around- partly characters, partly goddesses, and partly in-world terms, but it does settle.
Part two – the journey east to meet with tribes. As fun as it was to get on the road, the middle dragged a little for me, despite all the action. It became repetitive with the same arguments between the group members.
And the story falls into this pattern of fight, someone nearly dies and is saved by other, heal and h/c (hurt/comfort). If you’re into the h/c, this story is for you, because it has it in spades throughout all three parts as Waclaw and Otylia, grow closer and face different problems or battles together.
We also learn some interesting history of the Gods, and Marzanna the Goddess of Winter and Death, gives Waclaw a choice that will have repercussions.
Part three -In the mangled woods for final showdown where Waclaw has to enter the Lake of Reflection and find the Heart of its power. This was very cool and led up to an action-packed finale and a quite unexpected turn of events that I won’t go into for the obvious spoilery reasons.
There were things that made the story special, and things that drug it down just teensy bit:
The battles were fun, though occasionally began to feel like filler in the middle, esp. but the end brings us a nice big lightning-powered finale and an event that I didn’t expect.
The characters for the most part, I liked, though some of the peripheral characters seemed to be there just to beak-off and cause problems, and didn’t have much in the way of growth.
A good strong edit would help thin down some of those repetitive/filler scenes and arguments. They kept the story from moving too quickly but didn’t add much either.
On the whole, I enjoyed the story once I got into it. It has the feel of a fairytale between the magic and the goddesses/gods being so involved and a part of their lives and beliefs. I don’t know where the original tales and the author’s imagination begin and end, but I loved the lore, and liked how it was used to tell Waclaw and Otylia’s stories.
If you’re looking to read a book that has a lot of pissing contests but are not much for full blown fights, then A Dagger in the Winds might just be for you. Pissing contests galore, but with words! Yep. There is plenty of banter in between characters plus young men of various standing having at it each other. With words. You know what? I enjoyed it much more than I would have if it had come to blows every time a character attempted to show dominance.
Our male MC, Waclaw, is not one to brawl or sting with well placed words in a sentence. In fact, he’s quite the opposite. He is the Chief’s bastard son and gets a LOT of stick from the villagers, as well as his own father. So, it’s no surprise that he is actually quite shy, fearful and lacking self-confidence. But all the shunning has not made him rotten to the core. He is, in fact, rather nice. Perhaps too nice.
If you’re not thinking, oh no! a softy main character? Fear not. We have a second POV in the book. A female main character Otylia. And she. Takes. No. Shits. From. Anyone. Yeah, she’s your character to get behind on, she’s your badass. But she has also had a fairly tough time in the village.
Now… this is the place where I need to say, these 2 MCs make the character dynamics interesting. It remains consistent throughout and it’s vibing. Hard. Waclaw and Otylia are complete opposites. Not only do they have some past stuff to sort out in between each other, they also have a difficult journey to undertake together. Story, aplenty. It is essentially a version of a road trip adventure where our main characters are being put to the test and through hardships, they must learn the secrets about each other and the world around them. The only downside for me was the pace that lost some momentum around the halfway mark but even that is only a half-hearted observation because I can’t say I was entirely bored. Yes, the young ones get caught up in moments that are important to them, I understand. In the matters of the heart, it often is the case that the world could literally crumble around you, and your brain would still only be calculating the possibilities with the opposite sex.
Now, the secret sauce of this novel, however, within the 600+ pages, lies in the Slavic culture element. Let’s be honest, if you know naught about Slavic culture of folklore, it feels new, unique, fresh and romantic. It just lifts the story with some great scenes and little details. In fact, even if you are from a Slavic culture, it’ll be fun riding the wave of nostalgia. Being from Estonia, I am not directly from a Slavic culture, but I am pretty darn close and some of the things in the book simply made me smile. Good use, Brendan! Good use… It does, in my mind, also keep those traditions and way of life from the days past alive. So, my final words? I would recommend this book. It holds its own and it has much to like about it. I would also tell potential readers not to worry about page count – somehow the pages simply fly by and you will want to know how it all ends. There are no overly graphic scenes that could make more sensitive readers turn their heads away from the book, and there is no crude swearing which also appeals to some. I mean, solid. Sends a high five to Brendan Noble!
Though A Dagger in the Winds has the occasional bloody moment, its prose and story put me in the mind of a middle-grade epic fantasy adventure (I believe it is officially listed as young adult). The book draws heavily on Slavic mythology, with an emphasis on Polish interpretations of the myths. First-person point-of-view chapters alternate between Wacław, the High Chief’s partially acknowledged son, and Otylia, a wilful sorceress who serves an equally wilful nature goddess named Dziewanna.
A Dagger in the Winds shows a lot of loving mythological research. As someone who is less familiar with Slavic mythology, one of the things I enjoy most about it is the way in which it introduces its gods and their relationships with one another. It’s easy to see why the author was drawn to a story about a wild nature goddess drowning the winter goddess every year.
Otylia, in particular, is a striking and unusual character. I found her chapters regularly interesting, given her connection to an underappreciated goddess and her own rebellious nature. For the most part, even when I felt like the plot was trickling along too slowly, I was happy to be along for the ride during Otylia’s chapters because of their strong flavour. Her insistence on propping up Wacław despite his bumbling and despite the cold way in which he treats her eventually became exasperating, however; Otylia even starts the book upset with him, but remains attracted to him, protects him several times, and eventually forgives him for no particular reason. I will admit, the trope of a far more driven and competent female character propping up a buffoonish male main character has grown particularly tired for me. Whichever character actually has more drive and active desire to follow the plot… they should probably just be the main character.
Unfortunately, Wacław’s chapters are where the story really falls down—and he does seem to be the primary character of the story. Compared to Otylia, Wacław comes off as a relatively flat character, constantly making sudden decisions for the sake of moving the plot forward, rather than because his personality naturally supports those decisions. Other characters in Wacław’s vicinity also tend to make these abrupt, plot-necessary decisions.
Wacław’s main downfall, however, is probably his lack of agency or drive. Unlike Otylia, who has very clear goals and is always coming up with ways to pursue them, Wacław starts out maybe thinking that he’d like to snag a pretty girl at the festival, then gets distracted by a different pretty girl, then kills a demon because it happens to be in front of him, and then… mostly asks Otylia what he should do. While Wacław occasionally has idle wants, he spends the majority of the early story needing to be dragged reluctantly into the plot, either because someone else has forced him into it or else because Otylia told him to do it. I should say that I discontinued at about 38% of the book, as soon as it became clear that Wacław would continue being dragged everywhere. A hero can resist the call to adventure a few times, sure—and the reader might chuckle at their futile attempts. But after a quarter of the way through the book, at most, the hero needs to finally pick up the phone and listen, or else it’s just exhausting and frustrating.
The fact that A Dagger in the Winds is a very long book for a story which didn’t actually require so much space only compounds a lot of its issues. The novel’s pace is very slow and uneven. Characters tell and retell the same stories to one another in dialogue, forcing the reader to retread events which they were already there for in the first place. Meanwhile, many of the moments where the author should have lingered in order to provide more detail were forced into a single line and then rushed past; for instance, at one point, a demon drags Otylia into a swamp, and I became extremely confused, because it happens in exactly half a sentence. I also had no sense that Otylia was standing close enough to the swamp to be dragged under at all, let alone so quickly. There were several moments like this, where I had to reread and pick out the single line which should have alerted me to a relatively major shift in the scene.
Ultimately, while A Dagger in the Winds had some genuinely interesting concepts, its very uneven pacing and its main character’s general apathy towards the plot both let it down as a contender in the contest. It’s possible that Wacław eventually takes an active interest in his own plot—maybe by halfway through the book?—but the fact that I couldn’t get far enough to see him do so suggests that the book could use some developmental work.
Books that draw on real-world lore and mythology always entice me, playing to my love of history and the fantastic. A Dagger in the Winds is one such book and one that is deeply rooted in Slavic myth, with all manner of creatures, beings, and gods/goddesses prowling its pages.
The initial third (ish) of the book was wonderful and set entirely within our protagonist’s village, Dwie Rzeki. There was an abundance of atmosphere with really detailed and enticing descriptions of its customs, people, and environs. It felt alive and vibrant but also had a sumptuous amount of threat and mystery lurking in the wild woodlands of its borders.
Our two main protagonists, Wacław and Otylia, are both extremely likeable and sympathetic characters. Despite their tender ages, they both have a substantial amount of emotional baggage that makes for complex and dynamic development. Wacław was a particularly interesting character, given his reluctance to be the hero, and it was refreshing to see someone who rises to the occasion despite not wanting to and not believing that they can. Though just book one, their individual arcs were fantastically enjoyable, and it’ll be interesting to see how they develop as the series progresses.
Unfortunately for me, though, once we leave the village and the journey segment starts, the story loses its magic. While there are a number of exhilarating battle scenes later in the book, the bulk of it is a fairly generic and very YA-feeling road trip. The chapters read very similarly, with the same characters bickering about the same things and the same ‘is he looking at me?’ ‘is she looking at me?’ JUST TALK TO EACH OTHER internal monologues that do nothing for me.
Despite my minor criticism there, A Dagger in the Winds is still a book I’d heartily recommend to any fellow fantasy reader. When time allows, I’d love to continue with the series and experience more of Brendan Noble’s flavourful Slavic world.
A Dagger of the Winds is one of those books I had no idea what to expect from. On the surface, it didn’t appeal to me, but Bjørn picked it as his semi-finalist, and every once in a while our tastes meet (see Small Miracles), so I approached with an open mind. I ended up having mixed feelings, but can’t say that I either loved or hated it. It’s somewhere in the middle, I guess.
We have two MCs, Wacław and Otylia with alternating 1st person POV chapters. They are both sixteen, living in a small village, on the verge of becoming adults in the eyes of their society. They used to be childhood friends until their rivaling fathers put an end to it. They are both outsiders in their own way – Wacław is the second son of the High Chief, born from his concubine, while Otylia is the chosen of one of the gods (Dziewanna), a szeptucha, whom people call a witch. Wacław is hard-working, quiet, caring, and unwilling to get into fights. Otylia is the cool, mysterious girl who doesn’t hold back from speaking her mind. She is also determined, strong-willed, and fierce. Probably a lot of readers will like her way more than Wacław who doesn’t have much agency throughout the book and pretty much gets his ass saved all the time. Which by the 50% mark got a bit boring, to be honest.
A Dagger in the Winds is a YA epic fantasy novel, but I think the adult audience will enjoy it just as much. There aren’t many graphic scenes, but there are figths, there is bloodshed and there is a coming-of-age undertone to it. It’s especially prominent in Wacław’s arc, who has to become a warrior, and has to come to terms with some truths about himself – though, that’s true for Otylia too, but she’s always been more at ease with herself and her path as Dziewanna’s servant. I think Noble managed to capture those mixed feelings of leaving childhood behind and the emotional journey of coming to terms with not only that but with their responsibilities too. On the other hand, I agree with the others, Wacław and Otylia needed to get to fucking move on and stop moaning about each other in their inner monologues.
Personally, I liked the first third or so that was set in the village as we got to know the characters and their culture, but I know some people will find it a bit slow maybe. Then I got bored as their journey dragged on and on and then got invested again in the last 25% or so. And yet, the ending left me a bit underwhelmed, despite some of the most emotional moments. I think we had so many similar moments up to that point, that I as a reader got numb to it, somehow. It ended on a cliffhanger too, sort of. Though, if you enjoyed the book, you sure will want to pick up the second book right after.
I felt that some trimming would have done good to this book. If it was 200 pages shorter, the pace and prose tightened up, A Dagger in the Winds could be a pretty good alternative to the Percy Jackson series, with an Eastern Europe flavor as a bonus. You don’t get much of those, so I’m giving extra credit to Noble for choosing to set his series in a world inspired by Polish mythology. How good he did with it though, I’ll leave it to Bjørn to judge. I, for one, found it fascinating.
While I had my moments with this book, I never really connected with it. I think I wanted something more from it, something less predictable maybe. As the revelations came, I kept thinking “of course” and moved on with a shrug. It came to a point where I just wondered why some of these were necessary. Apart from being super convenient for the plot. Still, for those who like epic fantasy and don’t mind it being close to the young adult spectrum, A Dagger of the Winds could be a good choice.
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