The Winter Riddle

The Winter Riddle

by Sam Hooker

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Overview

Once upon a time, the North Pole was a very noisy place. A kingdom cowered under the maniacal rule of the White Queen, The Vikings raided and pillaged as they were wont to do, and the Winter Witch avoided talking to any of them.

When her peace and quiet are obliterated by threats of war and Ragnarok, she’ll try anything to get them back. When casting spells to become nearly invisible and dealing with otherworldly powers fail, the Winter Witch needs to forge an alliance with Santa—a retired warrior who’s anything but jolly—to save the North Pole from calamity.

Will the Vikings take up arms against the frost giants? Will an evil necromancer keep the kingdom in the grip of fear? And for the love of Christmas, will everyone who isn’t the Winter Witch please stop meddling with dark forces beyond mortal comprehension for a bit?

Deck the halls and bar the doors! We’re in for a long winter’s night.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781732400702
Publisher: Black Spot Books
Publication date: 11/01/2018
Edition description: None
Pages: 338
Sales rank: 840,149
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author


Sam Hooker is a writer of darkly humorous fantasy novels about things like tyrannical despots and the masked scoundrels who tickle them without mercy. He knows all the best swear words, though he refuses to repeat them because he doesn't want to attract goblins. He is the author of Peril in the Old Country. He lives in Mission Viejo, California.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Most southerners alive today have never heard of the Kingdom of Aurora, especially if one permits the people of that kingdom to define the term "southerner." Given that Aurora was built almost exactly atop the North Pole, they use the term to mean "everyone not from the Kingdom of Aurora." They also extend it to any native Aurorian who won't shut up about how cold it is. Use of the term in this context is understood to be pejorative.

It shall be accepted as fact that the royal family ruled over Aurora from Castle Borealis since time immemorial, given that no credible evidence to the contrary exists. From the parapets of the castle's impossibly tall and permafrosted towers, one could gaze out over the little villages and fiefdoms nestled into the snowy pine forests, stretching off into the horizon.

Likewise, anyone standing in one of the aforementioned villages and fiefdoms could look up at the impossibly tall towers of Castle Borealis, and think ... well, whatever they wanted.

"Those towers are impossibly tall," an average Aurorian subject might think.

"The people who run that place are absolutely nuts," another might think, though he'd do best to leave that thought locked inside his head. If it escaped within range of the wrong ears, the royal family might have the aforementioned head removed and examined, just to be sure that no further heresies lay within it.

"I can't see it right now because it's too dark." While stating obvious truths has never made anyone popular or rich, it would be accurate for several of what we know as "months" out of every year.

At the North Pole, one day and night take place over the course of one year. The sun rises in late March, kicking off the spring. It continues moving upward until the summer solstice, and then starts working its way downward until it sets in early November, ringing in the long dark night of winter.

It should be noted that while there is a summer season, it is generally only included for the sake of tradition. The "summer" part of the year is only slightly less snowy than the other seasons, and anyone seen wearing a bikini is forced to undergo a full psychiatric evaluation.

Other than perpetual snow and the passage of a single day per year, the subjects of the Kingdom of Aurora had everything in common with the subjects of southern kingdoms, especially if the monarchs of those kingdoms happened to be stark raving lunatics.

All of the Aurorian monarchs throughout the history of the kingdom have called themselves the White King or Queen, generally in step with the standard definitions of gender, but there were exceptions. Monarchs get to do what they want.

The title came about because the first of their line was said to rule over everything that had snow on it. The first White Queen had been a great warrior and military strategist. Back in those days, the land was just silly with foreign powers who were all too happy to go to war with Aurora; but one by one they fell, until only the Vikings of Midgard might have taken up arms and marched on Aurora, but they never did. For reasons known only to the leaders of the two great powers, there was a lasting peace between them that hadn't been broken in hundreds of years.

In those centuries of peace, the need for the White Kings and Queens of Aurora to be great warriors waned, and they became more and more decadent, though "decadent" in this case is simply a polite way of saying that they went entirely mad. Of course, they had money, and rich people become eccentric in lieu of going mad. In the case of the White Kings and Queens of Aurora, the vastness of their wealth qualified them to identify as delightfully eccentric, which took the edge off of labels that might have been more accurate, such as sadist, tyrant, or despot.

At best, they might have smiled upon being referred to as libertines, then quietly had the referrer dragged off to the lower dungeons. People needed to be dragged down there from time to time anyway, according to the Aurorian monarchs. Very effective tool for keeping everyone on their toes — literally, for those having been dragged and subsequently chained to a wall, and figuratively for any bystanders on the verge of getting the wrong idea about their social standing.

Not so very long ago, the White King and Queen were a particularly ridiculous pair of libertines named Roderick and Beatrice. They spent most of their time drinking, gossip-mongering at court, and having people dragged off to the lower dungeons for gossiping either too well or too poorly. Back in those days, the art of being just good enough at gossiping was one of the most popular programs at the universities where nobles and aristocrats sent their children.

Between rounds of gossip, King Roderick and Queen Beatrice occasionally remembered that they had two daughters: the Princesses Alexia and Volgha. Alexia was the kind of girl who was hard to forget, though anyone who met her would certainly want to, as quickly as possible, and at any expense. She was well-versed in the art of screaming bloody murder upon not getting whatever she wanted from her parents, and she'd never had a mild reaction to anything in her life — much like the average teenager, only she'd managed it practically from birth.

Volgha was very different. Different from her sister, but also the sort of person who was referred to as "different" by people who were too polite — or afraid — to call her weird. She would have done well in a gaggle of teenagers who wore lots of eyeliner and took strolls through graveyards and said things like "woe is me" a lot, only she found that sort of teenager to be utterly ridiculous. At least she shared their complete lack of self-awareness.

While Alexia only communicated at the top of her lungs, Volgha was a mumbler and a glarer. She was the only member of the royal family who didn't care for the adoration of other people; in fact, she preferred to be left alone entirely.

There was one person whose company she didn't mind, and that was Osgrey. He was the court wizard, or at least that was the office that he held. Osgrey was actually a druid, not that it mattered to the ridiculous White King and Queen. He could have been nothing more than a moderately skilled juggler, and they'd have been impressed. Or not, depending on their mood, but Osgrey was consistently able to refrain from being dragged off to the dungeons. That skill alone qualified as magic in the minds of most people who knew the king and queen.

Osgrey worked with the royal gardener to keep the castle's winter garden teeming with vibrant colors. Strange and wonderful flowers, berries, foliage and trees grew together in great clumps and rows, weaving a wonderland of delights undreamed of in all the world. It was Volgha's favorite place in the castle. She'd spend hours there, finding little alcoves in which to lurk, or begging Osgrey to tell her the stories of all of the plants — where they came from, which ones could kill you, or which ones made the best potions.

He talked to trees. It seemed as though they talked back to him, but Volgha could never hear what they were saying. He grew colorful fungi on the brim of his pointy hat, and he was friends with a snow lion named Sigmund. Sigmund was all white, except for his piercing blue eyes. Volgha wasn't exactly afraid of Sigmund, but she worked hard at presenting herself as being poor for digestion whenever he was around.

Osgrey encouraged Volgha's love for all things natural and supernatural. She'd spend hours leafing through the Witches' Grimoire in the impossibly tall wizard's tower. He'd promised to teach her how to summon a familiar, an animal companion that could help her with some of the more powerful spells, as soon as she was old enough. Volgha was enraptured with the idea, and spent a lot of time learning about animals, figuring out which ones would make the best companions.

Both Volgha and Alexia grew up — as girls are wont to do — to become highly opinionated women. They were other things besides opinionated as well, but most of the adjectives that could have been applied to Alexia are very impolite.

Alexia was the apple of their parents' eyes, a spitting image of their mother as well as an impressive spitter. They'd always thought that Volgha would come around, join them in debauchery and gossip, but she never did. She fell in love with the mysteries of nature and learned all that she could from Osgrey.

That wasn't to say that Volgha didn't love her parents. She loved them very much, and cried when their mother passed away. Queen Beatrice expired of excess during a masquerade ball, in the course of scientifically proving how much wine was too much. Volgha cried, though she didn't cry as much as Alexia, who looked on that sort of thing as a competition. Alexia had stamina, and she played to win.

It wasn't long after their mother's death that their father succumbed to the same scientific experiment that claimed their mother, and all eyes turned to Alexia and Volgha to see which of them would take up the White Crown of Aurora. Volgha cried again, though Alexia gave mourning a miss and launched herself whole-heartedly into pestering Lord Chamberlain, the late king and queen's most trusted advisor, to read the royal will.

As expected, the crown passed to Alexia. She was the older daughter, and she had her parents' temperament. King Roderick had often implored Volgha to have a few bottles of wine and relax, but she'd been obstinate. He and Queen Beatrice acted as though their feelings were hurt, insisting in a very pouty and churlish way that she loved dusty old books and not them. It was this sort of talk that had made Volgha very skilled at rolling her eyes as a teenager.

After Alexia had taken the throne, things started to change. Anyone who'd ever slighted her — including many people whom she'd never met, but looked similar to people who'd slighted her ... well, not slighted per se, but certainly hadn't been first to wish her a happy birthday — wound up in the dungeons. One of them had been the royal gardener, who'd been given no warning that the new Her Majesty required a hedge maze in the shape of her favorite pony, but was punished for failing to provide one all the same. Ignorance is no excuse, according to Her Majesty.

Volgha was angry that the royal gardens were left to wither with the lack of care. That anger aided her in moving right along to fury when Alexia tried to imprison Osgrey, though he escaped and fled the castle. He'd left without saying good-bye to Volgha, and while she'd understood that he didn't have a choice, it made her very sad. She hoped to find him again someday.

The post of court wizard was given to an old necromancer by the name of Ghasterly. He smelled like death, always wore black, and snarled from beneath his long, black beard as he glared at Volgha. His first act as court wizard was to forbid Volgha from ever entering the wizard's tower again.

It's hard to tell whether he did it just to be mean, or simply because that's the way necromancers are. Magic, to them, is a powerful secret to be hoarded as jealously as possible from everyone. Druids and witches held a very different view: that magic is a powerful secret to be hoarded as jealously as possible, with the strict exception of the one or two people you really like. Druids and witches tended to be introverts.

How dare he ban her from the tower? Volgha was a member of the royal family! But Ghasterly had convinced Alexia that it was for her own safety, and wouldn't Her Majesty prefer it if her sister lightened up? Forgot all about this magic business, put on a fancy dress, and drank until everyone else had passed out but the two of them, and then passed out just before Her Majesty did, making Her Majesty the winner?

Fortunately for Volgha, Ghasterly never changed the enchantments that kept people out of the tower, and so she was able to sneak in one last time and steal the Witches' Grimoire and a few other books, namely the ones having to do with the Witching Way. She doubted he'd even notice that they were gone. All the same, she kept them hidden at the bottom of her underwear drawer. He'd have a lot of explaining to do if he'd been caught looking for them there.

As time went on, life at the castle grew more and more intolerable for Volgha. Ghasterly convinced Alexia that Volgha wanted the crown for herself, and she insisted that Volgha formally renounce her royal status to secure her rule. Volgha had never cared about ruling the kingdom, though nothing she said could convince Alexia. She ultimately relented and renounced her title, taking as a consolation prize the title of "Winter Witch." It didn't really mean anything, but according to the Grimoire, witches rely quite heavily on mystery and intimidation. A name like "Volgha, the Winter Witch" would carry a lot more weight if it were backed by the crown, and was frankly much better suited to her than "Princess Volgha, a Witch." With nothing remaining to tie her to the castle, she left quietly one evening, under cover of darkness at the winter solstice.

Osgrey had once told Volgha about a little grove in the valley, where the spirits of the forest spoke to him. She roamed the land and cast scrying spells until she found Sigmund grooming himself under a gnarled old oak tree. There was something familiar about the tree, and it didn't take her long to figure out what it was: the tree was Osgrey.

She'd found references in one of her books to druids turning themselves into trees near the ends of their lives, but they'd said nothing about the trees ever turning back into lovable old druids. She'd assumed they forgot how to do magic, their brains having turned to wood and all.

Though she was disappointed that Osgrey was gone, she was glad to have found the grove. Osgrey had a little cottage there, and she moved into it. She befriended some of the local fauna, including Sigmund, who seemed keen on sticking around. She started learning how to speak with the spirits of the grove — or rather to them, as they rarely spoke back — and would have been perfectly content to live out the rest of her days there, in peace and quiet.

Unfortunately, since her sister was no longer worried that Volgha would challenge her for the throne, she summoned Volgha up to the castle all the time. Ignoring her just meant that she'd ask louder and more frequently; and on one occasion in particular, it would turn out to be far more trouble than she'd imagined.

CHAPTER 2

Volgha had met Loki before. More than once. He never seemed to remember her, but that wasn't why she despised him. She despised him because for all of his power and charm and wit, he was a fool. He was a fool, and he never resisted an opportunity to plague her with his foolishness.

"Kneel before your queen, peasant!" His falsetto was piercing. Volgha was surprised that the mostly-empty wine bottles strewn around the room didn't all shatter.

"Wearing my sister's dress doesn't make you the queen, Loki."

"How dare you!" The word "dare" was drawn out and warbling, in the latest fashion of old money aristocrats who were prone to losing monocles when sufficiently outraged. "You shall address me as Your Majesty, lest you lose your head on the choppy thingy, in my mercy. Now kneel!"

"I am kneeling," said Volgha. "Your goon here has seen to that."

One did not impersonate the sister of a witch, have said sister's guard force her to her knees, and expect to not have all of the milk in one's presence instantly curdle for the next year or so. That spell would require rockwort and toadstool. She already had rockwort. She must remember to gather some toadstool.

"Right," said Loki, "but not humbly enough."

"Where is my sister?"

"How should I know, peasant? I've been busy queening over my queendom all afternoon! I've better things to do than look after your sister, whoever she is."

A muffled tittering drifted from behind one of the ornate sofas. Volgha recognized it at once. At least her sister had not befallen some horrible fate, and was merely complicit in her protracted annoyance.

"Call off the goon, will you?" Volgha was being held in her kneeling position by a mail-and-leather-clad guard. Not too roughly, but he wouldn't let her rise. Itchy warts for him, then. She'd have to remember thistle. Earthbloom and thistle.

"So you can further affront My Majesty? Do you think that I was queened only yesterday?"

"That's not a verb," said Volgha, who appeared more bored than vexed, proving that appearances can be deceiving. She was quite vexed, and it's never a good idea to vex a witch.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "The Winter Riddle"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Sam Hooker.
Excerpted by permission of Black Spot Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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The Winter Riddle 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
BobLeslie More than 1 year ago
The Winter Riddle (pub. Black Spot Books, 1st Nov. 2018) is a satiro-mythical morality tale whose author clearly demonstrates his membership in that emerging generic brotherhood which, much as the successors of playwright Ben Jonson gained the epithet “The Tribe of Ben”, could well be referred to as “The Tribe of Terry.” Yes, this story definitely has Terry Pratchett as its godfather, with Tom Holt standing in the wings in case someone drops the baby. The characters include witches who demand respect, barmy rulers, elves and goblins, Gods and barbarian warriors, and Santa himself (though not in hoggish guise here). Remind you of somewhere flat and full of magic? But this story is set on our Earth – albeit around a mythical version of the North Pole – and, while there are the kind of moral disquisitions we’re accustomed to see in the works of the tribal leader, the principal problem is a very modern one: global warming. But who is responsible? Is it some kind of plot by the Frost Giants to thaw their way out of Niflheim? Is it a rebellion by the land itself against the crazed rule of Queen Alexia? Or is it a deadly side-effect of a bet mischievous Loki has made against himself? Volgha, the Winter Witch and sister to the Queen, is facing all sorts of pressure: Alexia wants her to serve at court, the spirit of her old master Osgrey is nagging her to take on the job of Warden to the Land, Ghasterly the Castle Necromancer keeps trouncing her at magic, and Santa’s rickety prototype flying machine has dropped a wing right on her herb garden. In addition she has a duty of care towards a rather elegant snow lion called Sigmund and an ambitious Red Raven who is addicted to anchovies. Volgha, meanwhile, in Garboesque fashion, just “wants to be alone!” As you can no doubt infer from all of the above, there is a healthy streak of humour running through this tale, and, as with Pratchett’s oeuvre, it’s not entirely facetious. The moral dilemmas of “Who should rule?” and “How should one treat ‘the other’?” are neatly tied in with an entertaining plot and characterisation. Plus, we get a peek at the early career of that famed warrior, Santa. What more could you ask? My only reservation is that the introduction of a fairly large cast of characters slowed the plot a little at the start, but, once the protagonists were firmly bedded into the story, I just sat back and enjoyed the (sleigh) ride!
diane92345 More than 1 year ago
Part Game of Thrones, part The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and part Viking mythology, Winter Riddle is a thinking person’s fantasy. And it’s hilarious! At the North Pole, Volgha the Winter Witch is just trying to live an introverted life. However, her younger sister took over the kingdom, her mentor is now a tree and Santa is the worst neighbor ever. Enter the wacky fantasy world of Winter Riddle. Incorporating Viking myth, witchy lore, familiars and Santa in one plot doesn’t even sound possible. However, the author achieves it with this funny tale. The less you know of the plot of Winter Riddle, the more fun you will have reading this wonderful book. It is perfect for Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fans as the humor is similarly absurd. 5 stars! Thanks to Black Spot Books and NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.
GameOverMike More than 1 year ago
Do you like Terry Pratchett? Yes? Then you're going to love Winter Riddle. There's a witch, and a mad queen, and Loki, and fart jokes, and of course Santa Claus. It's a story about magic, the importance of trade unions, the qualities of a good stew, and doing the right thing when all you really want is to be left alone in your hovel...err...cottage. I joke, but there really is a wonderful story here about how even the most introverted can still contribute to the greater good.