When I was a child, my family used to go on holiday for two weeks every summer to the same hotel in Pembrokeshire. This hotel had a big bookshelf in a little sitting room that nobody sat in, and in that bookshelf were two shelves of children’s books, and every summer I would read them. We went every year from the summer I was three and a half until the time I was eleven and a half, and every summer I’d read all the books on the shelves, and any new ones that people had left. By the last summers I’d read some of the books on the grown up shelves above too. I never owned those books—but owning books didn’t seem important compared to having access to them, and I had access to them every summer in Penally.
One of my favourite of those books was Victoria Walker’s Winter of Enchantment, only I couldn’t have told you that because I didn’t pay enough attention to titles and authors in those days. To me it was “the book with the magic teapot and the personified seasons,” and as much as I’d have liked to have read it to my son when he was the right sort of age I never found it again, because that really isn’t enough to go on.
Except that it kind of is. I mentioned it in a comment on my post about The Hobbit, and Another Andrew identified it from those details. I checked at the time if it was in the library (no) and if it was available, and then it seemed to be available only as an expensive hardcover—and I wasn’t sure it really was my Goerge MacDonaldesque book with the teapot that winked. However, yesterday I checked again, and now it’s available as an e-book for $2.99, and that’s an amount I’m prepared to venture. I bought it and can confirm that this is indeed the book I remember. I could tell it was from the very first line, which is strange, because I didn’t consciously remember the beginning at all.
From his perch on the window seat Sebastian watched the November gusts scatter the heaps of leaves, toss each one in the air and then blow them into new piles.
Yes, I thought happily, this is it. The opening was deeply familiar to me even after thirty-seven years of not reading it. This may be one of my longest gaps between re-readings ever. And I curled up with it happily and was immediately absorbed.
Objectively, it’s a simple little collect-the-plot-coupons story in which a girl is imprisoned and rescued by the male protagonist. If I’d read it yesterday for the first time I doubt I’d have thought much of it. What it reminds me of more than anything, now, is a computer game, where you have to do everything in the right order, all the clues show up just when you want them, and the evil bad guy’s motivations don’t bear examining and he’s just that little bit too slow. If you like Skyrim… But it was written in the late sixties and predates not only computer games but most of modern fantasy. It seemed like a cool and unusual book to me because most of what can now be seen as children’s and YA fantasy didn’t yet exist. And I thought it was George MacDonaldesque (for years I thought it was another George MacDonald) because despite being written in the sixties the bit of it that’s in our world is set in late Victorian London.
It’s a charming book. It’s full of little turns of whimsy—the winking teapot, and the cat that has eaten the Silver Fish that is a Power Object, the way Ver is always sniping about fallen leaves. There’s far less of the personified seasons than I remembered—only a chapter. It’s one of those classic Suck Fairy moments—the seed is there, but most of what I remember about them came from my own imagination and not from the book. However, what is there is cool enough, and very evocatively described. It’s not the book’s fault if I spent a lot more time thinking about the forest where Time can’t go and the cave of the seasons than the author did.
And it’s a well written book. The description is great, and the book moves right along, everything connects, the characters are well drawn and if the plot is running in grooves then it’s redeemed by the truly magical moments of transformation—Sebastian turning into a shadow and turning into glass are as atmospheric now as when I first read them. It has a great magic mirror too, one that deeply influenced the way I think about magic mirrors.
I don’t really recommend reading it now for the first time, unless you want to read it to children or give it to children. There’s no reason modern kids wouldn’t still like it. And it has a lovely end. Somebody should make a film out of it instead of trying to make films out of obviously unfilmable books the way they usually do. This is straightforward, nifty, and not very long. There’s a sequel, which I never saw as a child but may well read now.
In the end though, there’s a difference between books that are formative and books that actually stand the test of time. Winter of Enchantment was a formative book for me, and I’m delighted to have found it again.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.