One summer, when I was in middle school, I read 56 books. I still remember the number because my parents were so impressed with the average of nearly five books a week. As an avid consumer of fiction in my teenage years and a self-proclaimed amateur expert on young adult novels, trust me when I say that Christine Cohen's The Winter King checks every box.
There's love and loss, allusions to Greek mythology and Norse gods, and a heroine Cohen describes as "spunky, feisty and adventurous." Inspired by C.S. Lewis and Percy Jackson, the Greek myth of Persephone and Hades, and authors like Dianna Wynne Jones, The Winter King is a beautiful medley of everything that makes a story memorable.
Cohen, 32, is a Spokane native who moved to Moscow, Idaho, after high school to start college, and then her life.
"Moscow is where I wanted to raise my kids. I told my husband, this is where I want to die," Cohen laughs in a recent phone interview, describing her hobbit-like nature and referencing the Lord of the Rings series she fell in love with as a high schooler.
But wanting to live in the Shire isn't all she took away from J.R.R. Tolkien. Cohen has always known she wanted to be a writer. Her obsession with storytelling first manifested in a paranormal fiction piece, written out on lined notebook paper and held together with staples, before being passed around the schoolyard between friends.
"Writing came alive in my life as a child," Cohen says, talking about the summer she spent locked in her room writing stories about elves and hobbits, and drawing maps of Middle Earth. I can't help but relate, thinking about the many notebooks I once filled with my own fantasies.
It's this beautiful nostalgia that I enjoyed most about The Winter King, Cohen's debut novel. The book reminded me why I fell in love with reading, and why I love writing. The Winter King falls into a perfect sweet spot of young adult fiction. Cohen purposefully didn't skew the novel to an older crowd, hoping to find an audience among readers who have grown out of middle school, but aren't yet ready for the graphic maturity that oftentimes you find in the young adult category.
"The romance is sweet and subtle," Cohen says. "I've been overwhelmed and thankful for the feedback I've been getting from readers and parents who were looking for this." Cora, The Winter King's protagonist, is 16, and Cohen treats her character like a real 16-year-old, not a small adult. It's refreshing.
This isn't to say the novel is childish, because it's not at all. Cora deals with extremely real, grownup challenges, like poverty, corruption and grief. This reflection of the real world was intentional. "I wanted this story to feel like it could really happen," Cohen says. She succeeded in doing just that.
The world Cora lives in is not unlike our own, and the problems she struggles with are relevant, to the point that even the coughing sickness that cripples her village parallels the pandemic we are currently facing.
"These are age-old dilemmas," Cohen says of the disease and oppressive rule in the backdrop of The Winter King. "Tragedy can bring out the worst in some people, but also the best in some. In the story I wanted to show how people can rise up."
Cohen particularly wanted to explore this in regards to the theme of grief, because, as Cohen says, "everyone goes through hardship." How Cora handles her grief and hardships isn't always healthy and is oftentimes harmful to herself, though she believes her actions are in pursuit of something good. We can all relate to that.
Cohen's choice to write The Winter King for a younger audience ties into this exploration of struggle.
"The teenage years are a unique period of life," Cohen says. "You've grown up with your parents' stories of how things work and are now learning to claim stories for yourself. You are discovering the largeness of the world and trying to find your place in it."
What you watch, hear and read shapes your view of life. It helps you discover who you are and who you want to be. Young adult novels speak to us when we are struggling the most to find ourselves, and having heroines like Cora to look up to makes it a little easier.
The books I read growing up, and continue to read, are semi-responsible for the woman I am today. This is why I found myself unable to put down The Winter King. It reminded me of the stories I loved and characters I idolized and all the books I read as a teenager.
"It's a hopeful story," says Cohen, "a message that we can all pull through this, that no man is an island."
I believe that now more than ever we need to find strength in hope, whether we find that in each other, or in a book about 16-year-olds saving the world. As Cohen reminded me, "There is so much room in this world for joy and hope." ♦
If you are interested in purchasing The Winter King, it is available on Amazon, and to secure a signed copy of the book check out canonpress.com/products/thewinterking.