It’s 2073 on a lonely, desolate, mysterious Scandinavian island, when a journalist stumbles upon a beautiful woman and a deadly secret. It’s 2011 as a failed archaeologist unearths a grotesque burial with the help of an addled boy and his loving mother. It’s 1944, and a pilot with a 12-year-old daughter is rescued by a bitter farmer and his death-stained family. It’s 1902 when a forgotten artist befriends a young girl before dying upon completion of his masterpiece. It’s 1848, and a ghost tells two naughty children the tale of her lover’s magical transformation and untimely death. It’s the 10th century, and two siblings are separated by a blood-thirsty vampire and an infertile warlord. It’s a time before time, and a king and queen are murdered in a plea to the gods to bless their lands.
The island is called Blessed, but was once named Bloed after the blood sacrifices made in its earliest days. Villagers there never age and never bear children, and swear to the magic of the dragon flower. When Eric the journalist first arrives, when Eirikr the One King finally returns, he sets in motion a plot centuries old, one that will either bring together forever or permanently rip asunder a star-crossed romance.
The first of seven interconnected stories in Marcus Sedgwick's Midwinterblood opens with Eric Seven on assignment to the tiny island of Blessed, so far north that the sun never sets in summer. He intends to investigate the rumor of ageless locals binging on a rare, sinister-looking black and purple orchid that grows only on the wildest side of the island. Tor, the self-appointed chief of the island, secretly poisons Eric, gradually blurring his thoughts. Merle, the plucky, pretty local girl who stole Eric’s heart at first sight, saves his life by giving him an antidote to the poison while damning him by freeing up memories of lives once lived. And soon Eric and Merle are about to die for the seventh and final time.
Midwinterblood works its way backward, each new tale weaving with the others that came before, and coloring in the coincidences that never fail to lead Eirikr and Melle back together. Sometimes the stories are told in first person, sometimes third, and once as a semi-autobiographical ghost story, but all are haunting in their ill-fated romance, like Romeo and Juliet writ large. Eric and Merle are united in every shade of love: Eirikr and Melle, a married couple; as deeply bonded twin siblings Eirik and Melle; as mother Merle doting on her son Eric; as old artist Eric and his youngest fan and friend Merle; as illicit lovers Erika and Merle; as farmer Erik and daughter Merle, two strangers bound by their loyalty to another.
“It was always his way. His tools were his hands, and his arms and legs. My way was to think, his way was to do.” And so it goes, though a millennium passes, Eric is the one to blunder his way into Merle’s life, and Merle in turn gives him strength through her wisdom and devotion. He builds the road that connects them through time and space, but she is the one who must walk it, following him and his promise to be together for all eternity.
Marcus Sedgwick has created a beautiful and heartbreaking book partially inspired by Carl Larsson’s epic painting Midvinterblot. It’s simple enough that you could finish it pretty easily in an hour or two, and that is really my only critique. Not that it needs to be more plot-heavy—there’s plenty going on above and below the surface to keep the reader occupied—but that the writing style was sometimes a little more spartan than the story necessitated. Basing a whole book on a pair of destined lovers requires establishing their eternal romance beyond simply stating that it exists. Then again, we never get to know what Romeo and Juliet find so attractive about each other beyond the fact that they were fated to fall in love. If Shakespeare can get away without character explication, then I suppose so can Sedgwick.
There’s enough horror and fantasy to appease genre fanatics, but those elements are also slight enough that even the most snobbish of “real” literature readers would be hard-pressed to condescend it. And even though the book itself is rather light, it carries an intense aftertaste, one that lingers in your mind long after you’ve finished it. I turned the last page almost two weeks ago, and yet I keep randomly picturing Eirik leaving his sister Melle in the dead of night to seek out their vampire uncle, or Erika and Merle stealing forbidden kisses in a dew-drenched meadow.
This is definitely a book I’ll re-read. Not anytime soon, but I will. I want to let it slip from my mind, like Merle and Eric fade from each other’s memories, so when I do come back to it, it will feel like recalling a fond memory, like finding a long-lost friend, like coming home.
Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick is out on February 5th from Roaring Brook Press.
Alex Brown is an archivist, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.