The Plot: Medraut is the oldest son of King Artos of Britain, but he can never be Prince. He can never be King. He can never be his father’s heir. He can never have what his younger brother, Prince Lleu, has — not because of anything Medraut has or has not done.
Not because of skills or ability or talent; no.
The reason that the young, arrogant Lleu is heir and favored son is because of the circumstances of their births. Lleu is the legitimate son of Artos and his wife, Ginevra. Medraut is the elder but he is illegitimate, and (as is only known by a handful of people) Medraut’s mother is Morgause, the king’s sister.
Medraut must watch from the sidelines at all that Lleu gets and is expected to get. His feelings towards his younger half-brother are complex, but it is not until his mother visits the royal household that Medraut is forced to make a choice, between his father and his mother, between himself and his brother, between the role fate has for him and the role he wants.
The Good: Why did it take me so long to read Elizabeth Wein’s first book, when I have heard over and over again how wonderful it is? Because I’m an idiot, I guess.
The Winter Prince is a retelling of King Arthur, told from the point of view of his son Mordred. If, like me, you went on a King Arthur binge at one time in your reading life, you may recall that the earliest legends and tales do not say that the king and his son were enemies. So, here, Medraut is loved by his father and his stepmother and their two children, Princess Goewin and Prince Lleu. He is a member of the family, acknowledged (though the truth about his mother’s identity remains a secret) and loved.
From the outside, even, Medraut is favored. Several years old than the twins, he has been educated; he has traveled, to Brittany, to Byzantium, to Africa; he is a healer. He is talented, he is well liked. Medraut cannot see all that he has, because of what he does not have.
Lleu is young and handsome; he is well liked; but he is immature. One thing I loved about The Winter Prince is that even though this is told from Medraut’s point of view, and Medraut loves his younger brother, the reader sees the good things about Lleu but also sees that Lleu is, well, immature. A bit soft. For example, Lleu has no stomach for hunting, even though for the time period (and as his brother tells him) hunting is necessary to get meat to eat to survive. Lleu also sometimes has the unintentional arrogance of a protected teen: he knows he is going to be King someday. Yet, for all that — Lleu is likable. It’s just, like Medraut, the reader wonders if Lleu is really fit to become King.
The Winter Prince explores the relationship between Medraut and Lleu with the question ever-lingering in the back: will Medraut be his father’s son, loyal to his brother? Or will he be his mother’s son, and decide to do what is necessary to become king himself?
His mother’s son: Morgause doesn’t appear until half way through the book, when she escorts her younger sons to Artos’s kingdom. Morgause is a woman who plays with others, including her son and her brother. Artos was unaware of their relationship when he was with Morgause; Morgause knew, and wanted a son to use against her brother in her own quest for power. Morgause’s hold over her eldest son is such that the entire book is actually directed to her. It is a story he tells to “you,” and you is Morgause.
Surprisingly, it is the Princess Goewin who says something that creates some empathy in the reader for Morgause’s viewpoint. “Father’s kingdom, this unity, it won’t last — Lleu’s not like him, and even if he were, too much is changing too fast. It can’t last. Father would have me marry Constantine, the son of the king of Dumnonia in the south. It won’t be bad, it’s important, with all the tin mines and fishing towns. But he may as well marry me to one of my cousins and exile me to the Orcades, as he has his sister, because you can be sure I won’t sit by as queen of Dumnonia and watch Britain trickle through Lleu’s fingers. If I have to I’ll take the kingship from him by force.”
Goewin doesn’t really mean her words, but her frustration about her gender preventing her even be considered for power puts some light onto Morgause’s own actions, her manipulations of her son, her cold heartedness. And, perhaps, it explains in part why it is so hard for Medraut and Arthur to cut Morgause out of their lives.
A couple more random observations before my final raves. Medraut is in his early twenties, and Lleu and Goewin are in their late teens. Yes, this is one of those young adult books where the main protagonist is not a teen. Despite Medraut’s age, and despite his years of independence traveling and living in other countries, he is wrestling with questions that are familiar to teen readers: what will his future hold? Does he accept or reject his fate? How much control does he have for his future? Can he balance his wants and desires with those of others? And of course, all along, the reader wonders, how can this be worked out, knowing how history views Medraut, knowing that there are no stories about any children of Arthur other than Mordred.
Final raves, or why The Winter Prince is a Favorite Book Read in 2013: I adored Medraut. I adored his angst over how his fate and how his family seemed to box him into a very specific space. I loved how he could both love his younger siblings and be jealous and envious and angry at them. I loved that Wein only shows some of Medraut’s and Morgause’s relationship — there are suggestions that something more may have happened between mother and son. She shows just enough, so that the reader isn’t overwhelmed by the abuse Medraut has suffered and so that the story stays focused on Medraut and Lleu. And the ending! I was on the edge of my seat for the last few chapters, wondering where this was going, and was so very satisfied with the ending. And I love that this is done in less than 200 pages. (Yes, the ebook says 292 pages, but it ends on page 154. The remaining pages are the first chapters of the sequel, A Coalition of Lions, and a biography of Wein.)
And, yes, I have already downloaded the second book, A Coalition of Lions. There are five books in this series; the other three are The Sunbird, The Lion Hunter, and The Empty Kingdom.