It would be easy to characterize Winterbirth as akin to historical fiction, but really it reads more like a novelization of history, ala 1776, rather than just a novel. Fantasy setting aside, like a historical novel, the book is one of events more than characters. The cover states, "It is a World of Ice, It is a World of Blood, It is a Godless World." That's pretty much what the book is about - the world.
The first many pages are dedicated entirely to background - we witness a variety of events that take place in the long ago, but that have shaped in a significant way the `present' in which most of the book takes place. These sections provide context for the events that come later, and in this way make the world seem more realized than is typical for a fantasy genre story. Give author Brian Ruckley credit, he knows his world and its history.
However, like one often finds in an academic's attempt to make history interesting, you find two things missing: One, a focus on a specific dramatic tension, and two, the gritty details. A variety of moving pieces play out their parts in Winterbirth, none really taking primacy. To be sure, each constituency represented in the book has its own demons, its own goals, its own agendas. However, to paraphrase the characters in `The Incredibles', when everyone is special, nobody is. Winterbirth _is_ like real life that way - but frankly, there's a reason more people read novels than histories. When I mention details, I don't merely mean the details of the events taking place, but detail of the characters, detail of the environment. Human beings sense smell, taste, touch, sight, and sound. Each of these senses should be engaged by the author to bring the reader into the tale, but Mr. Ruckley rarely engages more than three of these. As a result, I often felt as though I were looking down on a series of events - almost like a chessboard - rather than looking through the eyes of the characters.
This is, in fact, where Winterbirth fails to live up to the example set by the likes of George RR Martin's works - `real' seeming series of events, multiple characters of moral complexity - but in GRRM you truly sit behind the eyeballs of each character and so become very invested in what happens to them. Mr. Ruckley never quite achieves that intimacy.
Add to these challenges a significant number of pages dedicated to events with no apparent bearing on the current story, and what might have been an exciting read at times becomes a total slog. Meaning, "It was tough to slog through some of those pages."
Assuming Mr. Ruckley continues his series in the vein of Winterbirth, it would be a neat trick someday to see someone write a `historical fiction' treatment of what, as I said, comes across more like a novelization of history. If one were to pair down about 3/5 of what is here, and then expanded with brutal and gory detail what is left, I think you'd have a 5 star tale. The world and its events presented here are certainly exciting, it's just a pity they're not written that way.
There are many things worse than Winterbirth on the fantasy genre bookshelves. I'll buy the second book in the series - but I will do so with a certain amount of trepidation. If I feel the same way about that one I do this one, I'll stop there.
If you haven't read Winterbirth, I would wait until some reviews of the second are posted and make your decision to purchase at that time.