Paula Volsky passed me by in the 90s. It may have been too nasty—I was reading a lot of groundling fantasy: Eddings, Feist, Weis & Hickman and some lovely dovelys like Patricia Mckillip and Sherri S Tepper.
The Wolf of Winter entrenches the reader in a harsh northern world: snow and ice, wind and thick forests. A land populated by large-framed, brutish and decadent people who view intelligence as pointless and kindness as irrelevant. A world where magic exists, but rather than making things soft and cushy, it eats away at the minds of those who attempt to use it.
At the beginning of the book we meet Varis, a man at odds with the world around him. He is born into the royal family of Rhazaulle, facing humiliation and ostracisation for his perceived weaknesses: he is too smart, physically frail and quiet. Eventually, sick of his nebulous existence at court, Varis exiles himself to the northernmost regions of the country to continue his studies. It is in these dark and forgotten corners of the kingdom that he encounters a sorcerer of immense power, a ghoulish figure who offers to teach him the forbidden and mind-destroying magic, necromancy.
To access this ability, Varis learns, all magic-users must imbibe highly poisonous and addictive drugs to heighten their senses and quicken their minds. These toxic substances eat away at mental cohesion, eventually causing an irreversible madness called–and I still cringe at the word–spifflication. Once Varis sets himself on this path, he finds within himself a malevolence he never knew existed, and an irresistible desire for the power of the throne.
Varis's experiences dominate the book. And although, theoretically, he is an antagonist of sorts, the reader grows to understand the world through his eyes. In fact the true protagonist doesn’t really throw herself into the action of the story until a good halfway through.
Finally we meet the protagonist: enter Varis's niece, who is similarly bookish and intelligent. Shalindra, however, uses her interest in the forbidden necromantic arts to oppose her uncle’s murderous ambitions. She is the crux upon which two countries will either succumb to the maddened necromancer, or be ruled by the rightful heir to the throne. As the story progresses, however, the reader realises that Varis and even his ghoulish mentor can't be the ultimate evil of the tale—that Shalindra’s feet are on a dark path.
The Tasty Bit
Necromancy, when done properly, has to be my favourite premise. In fact Sabriel by Garth Nix and The Awakeners by Sherri S Tepper are probably the only other stories I know where necromancy is more than a cheap ‘wo0oo0o spooky evil’ gimmick to show the crossing of taboos. (Note: I am not talking here about stories of the ‘undead’, but tales of necromantic ritual)
In The Wolf of Winter, even a highly intelligent mind is unable to understand magic. It takes a chemically heightened mental faculty to even comprehend the strictures involved in summoning and controlling ghosts. Eventually these substances take a toll on their minds and the magic-user degenerates into incoherence and random sadism.
I also found that behind the culture of necromancy in Volsky's world there is a strange…almost inevitable process. The nature of 'spifflication' (something only lightly touched on in the story itself), is actually concerned with the need to procreate and a sort of grooming: ‘spifflicated’ sorcerers compulsively breed and spawn new spifflicated children, they search out new humans to ‘turn’ to necromantic ways. Thus, in Volsky’s story, the final pervasive evil is the fact that the magic itself exists at all–a cruel twist by some sort of demonic creatrix.
Volsky’s world of necromancy and mind-blasted (sigh - spifflicated) sorcerers is absolutely fascinating. I was immediately taken in by the nature of (sigh) spifflication and necromantic ‘performance enhancers’, a kaleidoscope of story possibilities exploded and I had absolutely no idea where Volsky would end up. I tore through it in 3 days!
Sadly, despite her wonderful writing, thrilling premise and excellent style, the story itself seemed lacking in its final direction. In many ways, I feel that The Wolf of Winter would have been most effective in a much shorter format and focussed entirely on Varis’s experiences. Volsky forsook what should have been a story of spine-chilling intensity in favour of a diffusive plot and mysterious air that lacks a final, much-needed punch. Still, the book was devoured in just under 3 days, so I’d say it evens out to awesome.
The Other Stuff
Published 1993 by Bantam Books, Great Britain. I don't think this is currently in print, let me know if I'm wrong.