Helen is a teenage orphan, and she needs consoling. She uses one of her three passes for the year to take her friend Milena and visit her consoler, a woman in the town near the boarding school where Helen lives with other orphaned girls. If the two girls do not return in three hours, a classmate will be placed in “The Sky,” a dark solitary confinement cell, until they return.
Winter’s End by Jean-Claude Mourlevat is a dystopian YA novel translated from the French by Anthea Bell. The story focuses on four orphans who are confined to a boarding school. They know next to nothing of the outside world, until the events of the early chapters of the book. They soon find themselves in a world of vicious dog men, trustworthy horse men, and gladiatorial fights to the death. The Phalange, the government that oversees this world, has deliberately kept the orphans confined, for reasons that become clear as the novel goes on.
The best dystopian fiction shines a light on our current conditions. It gives us a reason to think twice about scientific advances, political movements, and mass media trends. Winter’s End includes some interesting elements having to do with how totalitarian regimes gain power by appearing better than the alternative and maintain power by silencing the strong and instilling fear in everyone else. The fights to the death for a mass audience are one of their means of control—these also happen to echo the reality television trend.
I would have appreciated a bit more back story on how the regime came to be and how the gladiatorial bouts tied in with their rise to power, but that might have been too much for a YA novel. Still, without that context, it’s hard to see the roots of this society in our own. One can imagine how a movement might gain power by appealing to people’s baser instincts and also how treating people as mere objects of entertainment devalues them as people. But the topic isn’t fully explored, and it might be especially hard for teenage readers, especially those who are new to dystopian fiction, to see what, if anything, the author is getting at.
So the political elements were interesting, but treated a bit shallowly; other elements, particularly the dog men and the horse men, seemed thrown in. The dog men are genetically engineered and clearly aren’t human; the horse men, on the other hand, appear to be human, but it’s never entirely clear whether they are a tribe of humans or a slightly different species. So with the dog men you have a comment about genetic engineering, a topic that is never tied in to anything else about this world; and with the horse men you have . . . something. A statement about how natural evolution is preferable to genetic manipulation? Or about how people who are different are mistreated? Are we even supposed to be contrasting the horse men with the dog men? If not, why have two groups of people/animals?
As a dystopia, Winter’s End is a mixed success. It raised a few red flags worth raising, but it didn’t frighten me the way good dystopias do. (I’m thinking of The Handmaid’s Tale, The Unit, or such classics as 1984 and Brave New World.) It’s more successful as a thriller. The characters are likable, and I rooted for them all the way. The plot took several unexpected turns, and I stayed interested throughout. I was not necessarily interested enough to stay up late reading, but when I was reading, I enjoyed myself.