Come with me on a journey to the isle of Blessed, a remote island somewhere above the Arctic Circle. On this island, and only on this island—only on its western half, in fact—grows the Dracula orchid, a dragon-like flower that bequeaths health and longevity. For centuries, the inhabitants of Blessed have cultivated this flower and reaped its benefits. They have also covered up a dark secret.
Got shivers? Good. You should. I don’t.
Midwinterblood is the first of this year’s Carnegie Medal nominees that I’ve read—I’m reading them all because the school library has ordered them, and another English teacher mentioned she planned to read them and hopefully get some students to read some of them as well. Since I like reading books, and I do want to read more books for young adults so I can remain hip and fashionable, I decided to jump on board the bandwagon and see what Marcus Sedgwick could offer me.
Everything about this book, from its description to its title to its cover, screams horror or at least dread. It promises me blood sacrifices, vampires, and dark secrets. It delivers on all these things. So why don’t I feel very horrified?
I have to admit, the opening part of the book hooked me. In 2073, journalist Eric Seven travels to Blessed to learn more about its reclusive people. (Sedgwick actually doesn’t bother to spend too much time trying to explain how or why Eric chose to come to Blessed, because it ends up not being all that important.) As with the inhabitants of any remote island in fiction, the people of Blessed turn out to be slightly off, and Eric spends several chapters giving them suspicious sidelong glances as he cycles around the island, trying to figure out what—if anything—they are hiding. He does, and he winds up on a big stone table for his troubles. The first part ends without providing any closure, and Part Two takes us back in time to 2011.
From there, Sedgwick, like an archaeologist, continues to explore the island’s past in reverse chronological order, carefully brushing layer after layer of dust away from a treasured find. Part Two actually features a team of archaeologists, digging on the island for whatever they might discover. They unearth an ancient Viking burial cairn—as well as a much more recent bomb from World War Two. This proves to be the tangible link to Part Three, which follows a downed British pilot’s recovery in the hands of some islanders.
With each subsequent tale, Sedgwick builds upon recurring motifs and images. In fact, as much as I personally didn’t care for this book, upon further consideration I can see how this is a good book for younger readers. It’s intricately constructed in a way that makes for good training in how to read actively, how to pay attention to a book’s structure and content in order to understand what’s going on. With each part set further into the past, Sedgwick reintroduces the same names, recurring phrases like, “Speak of the Devil and his horns appear,” and recurring plot points. These are all very obvious (just as Eric Seven’s name becomes obvious in hindsight by the end of the book)—but obvious so that kids can pick up on it.
But if Midwinterblood is supposed to fill me with dread, it doesn’t succeed. The telescoping narrative is an interesting construction … but it means the book doesn’t actually have much of a plot. That is to say, the conflict has already occurred, and we are just tracing it back to its roots instead of following it to its natural conclusion.
So maybe this book isn’t meant to be horror but romance. Maybe this is the timeless tale of star-crossed lovers Eric and Merle. Maybe I’m supposed to feel sympathy for how, across time, they constantly find each other only to be ripped apart by the vagaries of fate or chance. Midwinterblood probably succeeds more in this respect—but in that case, I wish Sedgwick had spent more time building up the culture around which the story revolves. As it is, he has appropriated some vaguely Scandinavian traditions, but we get precious little in the way of explanation about the isle of Blessed and the Dracula orchid. The promised vampire is a bit of a disappointment.
The result is a book that is beautiful as a construct but unfulfilling as a story. I would love to laud Midwinterblood for its passionate characters or intense mood and atmosphere, but I can’t get excited about it. Eric and Merle live across time … but each chapter is more of a faint echo rather than part of an integral whole. I’m impressed by the writing here, but the book itself feels far too flat.