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The Winter Oak
James A. Hetley
Ace, 295 pages

Art: Lori Early
The Winter Oak
James A. Hetley
James A. Hetley is an architect and retired Kempo karate instructor who lives in Maine. He also served three years in the U. S. Army during the Vietnam war, and has worked such diverse jobs as electronics instructor, trash collector, and operating engineer in a refrigeration plant.

James A. Hetley Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Interview: James A. Hetley
SF Site Review: The Summer Country
SF Site Review: The Summer Country

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Alisa McCune

Camelot is long gone. Merlin was not the benevolent wizard nor was Arthur the true hero. Very little about the legends are true -- except that a magical place exists called the Summer Country. James Hetley has taken a modern fantasy tale and reminded us that happy endings never happen in the real world. The Winter Oak is a wonderful follow-up to the The Summer Country.

At the conclusion of The Summer Country, Maureen had come into her own as a witch by killing Dougal and defeating Fiona. Maureen rescued Brian from his half-sister Fiona's twisted binding and found a way to free Jo, her sister and David, Jo's boyfriend. Maureen suddenly finds herself in possession of a castle with slaves, a boyfriend, a very pissed-off dragon, powers she is just beginning to understand, and benefactress of a forest with unknown delights and dangers.

The Winter Oak starts with Jo and David's return to the real world and all its troubles. Time has elapsed and Jo and David cannot just return to their lives as if nothing has happened. Too much has happened for all to be as it was. David and Jo must find a way to face all the changes and to decide if they do indeed love each other.

Childhood sexual abuse and other abuses have scarred Maureen and negatively affected Jo. Each finds a sort of solace and succor in a bottle. Of course alcohol only provides temporary relief and creates more problems. Jo is forced to reckon with her parents's relationship -- the outcome of which will change everything for Jo and Maureen.

Maureen is haunted by all around her. She cannot accept Brian's love nor can she fathom why he remains. The bottle provides a means to deaden all the pain in her mind. Luckily, Maureen has the forest to support and love her unconditionally.

Brian finds himself thrust into a web of deceit and betrayal involving the Pendragons. He is unwilling forced to leave Maureen and in order to hang onto his own life. Much is revealed in his struggle to return to Maureen.

The wicked black witch Fiona lends a macabre presence in the Summer Country. Having impregnated herself with her own half-brother, Brian, she plots to destroy Maureen and Jo. Fiona crafts magic and science to bring ruin to those she feels threatened by. Fiona lies in wait, probing for weaknesses she can use to destroy Maureen, Jo, and Brian.

After reading The Winter Oak, I was stunned by the depth of the continuing story started in The Summer Country. The dark, twisted, urban fantasy only expanded to another level while allowing us readers to enjoy the ride. Maureen is so burdened by all her problems that it is easy to understand how hopeless she feels. The addition of alcohol makes the scene that much more depressing. Maureen's descent into alcoholism is incredibly realistic and painful to read.

The realism of Jo and David's difficulties further validates James Hetley as not your average fantasy author. While most fantasy books rely on the fantastic to convey interesting stories, Hetley relies on the underbelly of what we all have come to believe in as real. Reality is gritty and has teeth. The Winter Oak is earthy, dark, and yet redeeming all at once. Each character plays a part in their own redemption. No one waves a wand or casts a spell that suddenly makes all their unhappiness and pain go away. Instead, magic only enhances their abilities to survive and to heal.

Copyright © 2004 Alisa McCune

Alisa discovered science fiction at the tender age of eight. She devoured The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis and never looked back. She lives in Chicago with her husband, cat, and 5000 books. For more information please visit her website at

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