I really wanted to like this book, and for the most part, I did. It kept my attention throughout, there were parts where I really didn't want to put the book down no matter how late the evening was, and I do plan on reading the following two books in the trilogy... but, for over 600 pages of just Act One of a three-part story, I came away from Winterbirth feeling rather unsatisfied.
I was expecting Winterbirth to follow along the formula set up by its fantasy genre relative A Song of Ice and Fire, and, in some sense, it does: a low-magic setting based on Anglo-Scottish history with the serial numbers filed off, forest-dwelling Elves-not-called-Elves as both antagonists and allies, all as background for a bunch of political struggles between short-sighted feudal barons while the Great Big Bad™ rises unseen in the shadows. What might sounds generic and unoriginal can, in the right hands, become deeply effective and mythic; and, the author Brian Ruckley, a Scottish eco-hippie turned genre novelist, is a solid writer.
That said, there's just not enough meat in Winterbirth. Whereas every paragraph of the Ice and Fire books are crammed with little details hinting at the myriad vastness of the world outside Westeros and the rich history yet untapped by Martin, Ruckley's world seems rather plain. Worse, his characters have no real complexity (the primary protagonist Orisian is particularly vanilla) and Ruckley spends such little time fleshing them out before dropping them straight into the narrative (which, in the first novel, consists almost entirely of people either fleeing or being pursued around the countryside) that it isn't until nearly the end of the book that I actually start to care about them. That's a real problem as a good third of those characters are killed off by then.
Where Ruckley does shine is in establishing the gritty and bloody mood these books are well-regarded for. Maybe it's that I watched the BBC's History of Scotland documentary before I started reading Winterbirth, or that the Black Road antagonists (think the love child of John Calvin and Osama bin Laden) are so grimly different from usual fantasy baddies, but the novel does give the reader the sense of wind-chilled mail rubbing on calloused flesh. It may have its roots in Tolkein, but its heart is of refreshingly sterner stuff.