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Three Winter Books for the Cold and the Dark

The cold snap that passed through much of the United States made one thing very clear: Winter is Coming. It’s already snowed a few times for my family in the northern states, and even down in south Texas, where I live, we’ll be seeing a few more bits and bursts of bluster. The dark comes early and stays late. The migratory birds scurry through, hunting for every scrap of seed they can find before they journey on. It’s book weather. As a dedicated southerner, I prefer only to read about snow.

Here are three excellent books for your snowbound nights. These books will not keep you warm, but they will remind you of the importance of warmth and preparation before the big winter storms come.

Tove Jansson is one of those writers that other writers love, and most other people don’t know. She was famous for her wonderful Moomin series, but was also an accomplished and astonishing writer of prose that echoes with a wisdom and experience far deeper than the words on the page. Of the wintriest of her books, I am most fond of The True Deceiver, which takes place in a deep, blowing cold near the north sea.  A brother and sister live on the fringe of their close-knit community. He works intermittently at a shipwright’s shop. She sees an opportunity to ingratiate herself to a successful author and artist that lives alone in town, to deceive her way into the good graces of the rich, elderly woman, and make her brother and herself indispensable to the running of the house to secure a contractual arrangement that will allow her brother to have his own boat. On the face of things, the sisterly deceiver believes she will come out ahead of the arrangement, and nominally does, but… Also, no. No, she does not. It is a deep, psychological meditation about deception, and the contractual boundaries of human affection that works in no small part because of the beautiful and incredibly cold — very, very cold — landscape in the depths of bracing winter.

There are many seasons in this book, some of them very much spring and summer, but it deals with a community of men and women who live in the far north and face the harsh realities of their world with dignity and ferocious love for each other. A beautiful horse is stolen, and taken off an island by a desperate, young man. It sets in motion a series of events that connects Viking-like raiders with Celtic-like kings. Guy Gavriel Kay needs no introduction to genre readers, having become a ubiquitous presence on bookshelves both scholarly and domestic. This is one of his most popular books, and paints a vast canvas of a world and time that finds it’s greatest warmth at the home and hearth, where men and women gather together against the cold and the dark. The bonds of family are the great light – even when they seem to be so distant.

Okay, so we all know and love The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin. It is a very cold book. It is a cold planet covered in glaciers, and one of the most breathtaking passages involves a long walk across a glacier, where the two main characters are pressed in close quarters, and have to deal with both the reality of their desperate walk into the ice and snow, but also with the reality of their unconventional (for both of them) gender dynamics. Again, the cold and snow and ice makes the heat of warmth even more important. That warm friendship against the cold expanse, on a distant world somewhere in the dark… Well, I’m describing a renowned classic of science fiction and world literature, here, and it’s fair to say you all have already read this book. My real reason for posting this is to alert you all that no less than Library of America has reissued the Hainish novels as a lovely box set, and it’s absolutely beautiful looking, archival quality, and a wonderful gift for anyone in your life during these long, dark days.

Stay warm. Drink hot things. Read a lot of wonderful books.

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