Book Review: Winter Fire
The Wargamer's Aaron McKenna takes a look at William Trotter's Winter Fire, a book set during the Continuation War of 1941 – 1944 in Finland, following the path of a former orchestral conductor turned unwilling soldier.
A Mixture of Ice, Fire and Music
William R. Trotter is a man known for many things thanks to his eclectic writing talents; the voice of wargames in the US edition of PC Gamer for many years, Civil War historian and, in the case of Winter Fire, historian, novelist and music lover. The book, set during the Continuation War of 1941 – 1944 in Finland, follows the path of a former orchestral conductor turned unwilling soldier named Erich Ziegler, fighting with the German mountain troops in Finland.
His fate takes a turn for the better when he is assigned a special mission to, essentially, spy on the Finns in an attempt to gauge their willingness to make the big push required to take the vital Soviet port of Murmansk. During the course of this mission he meets legendary Finnish composer Jean Sibelius and becomes something of a protégé to him.
The book is the product of a conglomerate of Trotters skills; part history, part musical appreciation, and part fantasy, the book weaves a multitude of strands into a beautiful tapestry of visceral story telling. As an exercise in both military and musical history the book is extremely informative in its own right – before reading Winter Fire I knew comparatively little about the Continuation War, and nothing at all about Jean Sibelius (to the extent that I’ll admit to having suspected he was a fictional character until I researched the chap further), but afterwards I’ve gained a much clearer picture of both, as well as an insight into the inner workings of the musical mind.
The book also has a certain detachment from reality at times in the manner of a fantasy novel, but this element is told in such a way as not to remove the reader from the suspension of disbelief so critical to such a story. Instead, Trotter tells his fantasy story through the medium of the enchanting winter forests of Finland and the deep valleys of the Alps, proving his mastery of the genre with a skill rarely seen in fiction.
The book has been described by some as “the thinking man’s World War II novel”, and I find that a particularly striking description. While the action is tense, well written and historically accurate, there is much more dialogue and introspective thinking than there is war, though all the happenings of the novel are framed by it.
As well as the overall story Trotter is brilliant at bringing in simply throwaway moments which help to develop the characters and frame their personalities – for example at the beginning of the novel there is the story of the German Corporal in the snow which gives a great insight into Ziegler’s mind and character; it portrays him through his thoughts and actions to be an unwilling warrior and leader of men whom is greatly affected by their plight in war.
Winter Fire takes a fresh approach on the war-fiction genre and comes out of it looking the best man. Don’t expect huge battle scenes from cover to cover; rather come with a thinking hat on and an open mind, and it will become a read that will stand to you for a great many years.
About the Author
Aaron McKenna is a freelance journalist and gaming addict, though happily enough the two seem to mix quite well. When not muttering to himself and banging the keyboard in the hopes of producing readable articles he can be found anywhere from the throne room of a Civilization, the cockpit of an F-22, the boots of a GI or the bridge of an Akula, though since the writing of this article he can be found wandering about the woods near his home and attempting to climb trees and ambush passers by in an attempt to recreate the feelings of reading Winter Fire, all to the background music of Finlandia.