Notes: I read the eARC of the book and quotes will need to be checked against the finished version.
"The Lord of Heaven and Earth bids us not suffer a witch to live," the man declared in a singsong cadence. "We must not suffer evil in our midst, or we will become evil; we will defile our Lord's name by our very existence. We must do His work, no matter the cost. He sacrificed His only son for us; we must be willing to sacrifice no less for Him!"
Someone claiming to be the right hand of God is threatening Horngate and the surrounding communities. They've managed to bypass Horngate's wards and have made their intentions clear. What the "preacher" doesn't say is the bible also warns to beware of false prophets, which the man wearing sandals and a long beige cotton robe belted with a rope clearly is. In fact, the "prophet" himself is a witch for otherwise he and his followers would never have been able to breach the wards which protect Horngate from outsiders.
Additionally, Divine creatures, some of which were thought to be extinct, are popping up all over the surrounding areas. If all that is going on can be attributed to the witch claiming to be a prophet of God, then he is a powerful witch indeed. It may take all or more power than Giselle and her coven possess to overcome this enemy. With the previous attack still fresh in her memory, Max vows, "No one--no one--was going to get away with attacking her home again. She didn't care what she had to do to protect it and the people within. This was her home, her family. She'd kill anyone who threatened them."
This is the fourth book in the Horngate Witches series. Because there is so much to the Horngate series' world, I highly recommend you read the previous books to the series. While some may be able to pick up enough without reading the previous stories, I feel you'd cheat yourself out of the whole experience the series has to offer by doing so. I was first introduced to this series a year ago by the publisher, and when they told me they had copies of Blood Winter available for review, I immediately put in a request for one. Ms. Francis never fails to entertain me with this series.
While the name implies the books focus on witches, Max, a Prime Shadowblade, is the primary focus of the series. Shadowblades are individuals who were once human but have been magically altered by a witch to never age, be physically stronger and faster, and to have the ability to heal from just about any injury. In trade, they are unable to disobey the witch who created them, are no longer able to have children, and cannot venture out into sunlight. Additionally, they originally needed to leave their friends and loved ones along with their old lives behind. A witch is supposed to get permission from the individual they turn and, while technically Giselle did ask, she'd gotten Max drunk and the question was posed more as a hypothetical one than a true question. For thirty years after her transition, Max had hated Giselle, her one time best friend, for what she'd done and what she'd taken from her. When the Guardians, however, unleashed the flood of magic back into the world, Giselle allowed Max to save her family and bring them back to Horngate to keep them safe. Since then, she no longer hates, but neither does she like Giselle, and she's come to terms with what she is, a Shadowblade.
In Blood Winter, a so called religious sect called Earth's Last Stand is displaying cult like behavior and being lead by a witch claiming to be a "prophet" of the Lord. The group is bringing murder, mayhem and corruption to Missoula and threatening Horngate. The man in charge, Benjamin Sterling, seems to have no problem killing and torturing witches and humans alike under the guise of the Lord's will. While sometimes bringing a religious angle into a series can be a poor move on the part of an author, I felt it fit in nicely with what is going on in the world Ms. Frances has created. With a magical apocalypse taking place, it seems almost natural for a magical entity to attempt to gain power using religion to mask their evil doings. Desperate times tend to blur the lines between what some people will consider acceptable behavior, especially when survival becomes their utmost goal. People will follow whoever can offer them the best chance at survival, which can force them to follow the wrong person or people. To defeat this enemy, Max will have to use both her might and brains to rescue herself and others and not everyone will come out of this one alive.
Besides trying to save Horngate and the surrounding areas, Max's personal life is in disarray. Alexander senses Max is holding back emotionally from their relationship and wants her to break down the barriers between them. Considering her last relationship, which incidentally was thirty years ago, left a lot to be desired, she's not sure how. She's guarded her emotions for so long, she seems to know no other way.
Why is the book called Blood Winter? Well, I believe it's because the book takes place in winter and there are so many lives lost that the author chose to name it Blood Winter. A winter so bloody with death, no other name would do.
Overall, I gave this one 5 out of 5 roses. Plenty of monsters, drama, action, close calls, and seemingly impossible situations. There is a major twist in this one which I didn't see coming and enjoyed watching unfold. I highly recommend the book and the series. I love Ms. Francis' imagination and always look forward to seeing what she'll have up her sleeve for her next book. If your looking for a roller coaster read with characters you can relate and bond with, you may wish to give this series a try. This series definitely ranks among my favorites. I'm forgoing the romance rating because while there is a touch romance going on, I don't feel justified in calling it or rating it as a romance. Romance is not the central focus of the series and, for the majority of the story, the two seemed to be trying to define and solidify their relationship. So while there was a little bookie nookie at the beginning, I felt it was just used as a means of providing us a view into the dynamics of Max's and Alexander's relationship.