Reviewed date: 2020 Oct 24
Winter's Children meanders. Exciting battle sequences punctuate a story that shows demoralized, shell-shocked survivors slowly losing the will to live in a frozen ice age dystopia.
If Michael Coney were here right now I'd throw the book in his face.
The church bell tower
The world is buried in ice and snow. Jacko leads a group of survivors who live in a village church. The church bell tower is the only structure in the old village that is still visible above the snow. The group tunnels through the snow to retrieve supplies and canned food from village shops. The group has no long-term survival prospects. They scavenge off the remains of a dead civilization. When the food runs out, they will find another village or they will die. Jacko occasionally supplements their canned food diet by hunting, but the only game available are pads.
Coney does not explain the origin of the pads. They are large aggressive, semi-intelligent creatures. I imagine a cross between a mountain lion and a polar bear. The pads are suited for this new snow-shrouded world, which suggests they have evolved over a long period as Earth grew colder. But the existence of villages with edible caches of canned food indicate that the ice age has come on suddenly and only within the past generation or so, suggesting that the pads are not naturally occurring. Are they alien interlopers? Are they genetically engineered? Has evolution sped up a million-fold to produce these creatures so perfectly adapted to the new climate?
Coney never explains. It is sufficient to know that the pads exist, they are aggressive and numerous.
Pads are not the primary danger, however. Jacko and his band are most afraid of being found by the flesh hunters: a vicious gang of raiders. It's not clear if they are labeled flesh hunters because they are cannibals, or because they kill, rape, and kidnap anyone they come across. Either way, the flesh hunters are ice age scavengers just as Jacko's group is, simply more ruthless. They have no more idea how to establish a colony with long-term survival prospects than Jacko doesn.
Jacko's group is pathetic. There is the Old Man, a doddering fool who recounts tales of the old days before the ice which nobody quite believes (and which we later learn he took from books.) Shrug is an alcoholic. Switch and Cockade have lived their entire lives underground in ice tunnels and cannot go outside. Bog and Mignon show a little more promise, but not enough to spur the group into real action. Jacko feels responsibility for his people, but is an ineffective leader: he is unable to make the tough but necessary decision to leave the village and find a new, permanent home for the little tribe. These are damaged people, suffering from a lifetime of traumatic stress, and scarcely able to function. They will surely die.
Enter Ajax. He's ambitious and clever, and what's more, he's got psi powers: he can mentally control the pads. He wants to rule more than animals, though, so he sets his sights on wresting power away from Jacko and ruling a small tribe of people. He nearly succeeds. First he sends Jacko, Bog, and Mignon away on a trip to contact a larger colony. The colony is a lie: he's sent them to the flesh hunters fortress. While they are away, Ajax attempts to depose Shrug and to dominate Switch and Cockade. Fortunately, Shrug has been developing his own mental powers, and turns the pads against Ajax. By the time Jacko, Bog, and Mignon return (they escaped from the flesh hunters in one of the book's most exciting sequences) Ajax is dead and the group is safe for the moment.
The Southern Cross
But only for the moment. The flesh hunters, alerted to their existence, are coming. Jacko persuades the group to refit their snowboat, named Southern Cross, with an enclosed cabin for Switch and Cockade whose agoraphobia precludes them from being outside. They escape just in time, fighting off the flesh hunters and making a narrow escape.
Let's talk about Cockade. For the entire book,,Coney shows her to be the biggest problem threatening the survival of the group. She is disagreeable, argumentative, petty, self-centered, two-faced, critical, pessimistic, and ugly. She and Switch both suffer from agoraphobia, but when the flesh hunters are closing in, it is she, not Switch, who refuses to leave the bell tower. Jacko has to knock her on the head and drag her unconscious to the Southern Cross to save her life; Cockade preferred take her chances with the murdering, raping, cannibalist flesh hunters than venture outside to walk the twenty feet from the bell tower to the enclosed cabin of the snow boat. She would rather die than face her fears.
It is really kind of disturbing how poorly Cockade comes across. There is nothing redeemable in her. Even Shrug, the alcoholic, has moments where he displays bravery and courage. Not so with Cockade. She's the ugly shrewish woman, to be contrasted--in deliberate ways--with Mignon, who is beautiful and gracious and can do no wrong. It's kind of hamfisted. I'm not sure if we're supposed to feel sorry for her or angry at her, or both. In any case, she's clearly suffering from years of prolonged stress and it's no wonder she's cracked under it all. If we're meant to hate her, Coney didn't quite bring me to that point, but I was disgusted with her behavior.
The group heads south and eventually finds a warmer land where the ground is not covered by snow. They meet a small settlement of people. Jacko is elated to think they've found a permanent home. Alas, no.
And suddenly, an OK book turns bad
Winter's Children is an OK book. It meanders, has no strong plot, and generally lacks cohesion. But the last two pages made me angry. If Michael Coney were here right now I'd throw the book in his face.
Jacko realizes that Switch and Cockade can never live above ground. He cannot dig a cave into the frozen permafrost, so Jacko reluctantly decides to return with his group to the village, where Switch and Cockade can once again live in tunnels under the snow. They will surely all starve or be killed by flesh hunters, but Jacko is responsible for all his people and will not split up the group.
Then while Jacko's back is turned, Shrug launches the Southern Cross with only Switch and Cockade on board. The rest of the group is safe at their new permanent home, and Switch and Cockade sail off to die on the ice.
I cannot recall another book whose ending took an abrupt, surprising, and anger-inducing turn. No good. No good. Mr. Coney has written some books I greatly enjoy but this is not one of them.