I underestimated ‘Winter Dark’ from the very beginning (which is amusing given that people constantly underestimate the main character, Winter, and she always makes them regret it). I almost passed on the book because of all the hype. Amazon/Audible named it ‘Thriller Of The Year’ almost as soon as It was published in March 2019 but, by the end of the year, the hype had morphed into strong word of mouth and I added ‘Winter Dark’ to my TBR pile. I only realised how long it had been languishing there when I saw that the fourth book in the series is due for publication in July.
When I started the book I got swept along in its adrenaline-soaked path. The opening took the traditional techno-thriller/spy tropes and gleefully twisted them until they screamed. I watched teenage Winter being recruited/press-ganged into the operational arm of GCHQ because she’s a weird mixture of extreme sports adrenalin junkie and world-class hacker and I thought, ‘Eat your heart out, Alex Rider’.
My inner pendant woke up and said ‘There is no operational arm of GCHQ’ and I sneered at him and said, ‘Try to keep up. This is Alex Callister’s way of letting you know this is fiction, an entertainment, not a documentary’. Then we skipped forward ten years and I saw the devilishly cunning, highly plausible and completely criminal uses that Alex Callister had thought up for blockchain technology and the Dark Web, and I thought to myself, ‘What if it’s a double bluff and GCHQ pushes its plugged-in data-nerd image because it conceals its operational capabilities?’ and I knew my head was being messed with.
Even as I smiled at the action scene in the Alps (Winter’s a spy, of course there was an Alpine action scene and of course Winter was going to snowboard down a Black Run in the dark and blow up a helicopter), I realised that every time Winter went to anywhere in Europe that I know well, the descriptions of the places were spot on.
Foolishly perhaps, by the time I was about forty per cent into ‘Winter Dark’, I thought I had it pegged. Here’s how I described it:
“This is playful, clever and cheeky. it has an almost tongue-in-cheek style of storytelling, wrapped around a lethal high-functioning sociopath heroine, skilled in hacking, martial arts and snowboarding, who is more libidinous than Bond and with much wider-ranging tastes. Its strong plot, plausible technology and realistic descriptions of places around Europe keep the book from becoming an Austin Powers meringue.”
All of that is true but as the book progressed and I came to know Winter better and to understand the situation she was in the middle of, everything got darker and more intense. I kept thinking I had everything figured out, and I kept being caught by surprise as the plot twisted and turned and with every turn, it got better. I couldn’t have guessed at the ending but I once I knew what it was, I realised it worked perfectly. It was satisfying and all the things from earlier in the book that I’d tagged as ‘Yeah, like that’s gonna happen’ turned out to have cunning explanations.
But it’s not the plot or the international settings that make the book into an exceptional read. It’s Winter, in all her disturbing glory. She is a great character, as much a villain as a hero. She’s as dangerous and as ruthless as the people she hunts. She could easily be one of them and, if she was, she’d rule them all.
I’ve seen reviews that tag Winter as a female Bond. I’ve never read the Fleming books so I can only go by the movies but I don’t see Winter as Bond. She’s not Establishment in the way that Bond is, quite the opposite, she’s the Establishment’s worst nightmare. Her sexual appetites are as strong as Bond’s and more wide-ranging than his but she’s a lot less predatory. She’s not as entitled as Bond. She seems to be brighter and much more dangerous and, unlike Bond, she’s not playing the global domination game, she’s out to stop whoever it is that is killing children slowly and screening it live on the Internet.
Just as Winter is not Bond, her enemies are not the megalomaniacal narcissists of Spectre. They’re smarter, more ruthless and more focused than that. The main baddy and Winter are cut from the same cloth and they both know it.
By the end of the book, I knew that ‘Winter Dark’ was not the tongue-in-cheek entertainment I’d thought it would be. It’s filled with violence and sex and acts of cruelty which are neither decorative nor exploitative but are disturbingly realistic.
I can see now that ‘Winter Dark’ probably was the best thriller of 2019 and I stupidly let it sit on my shelf for two years. The good news is that the next three books are available to me now and I can see what Winter does next.
‘Winter Dark’ was conceived as an audiobook from the start (there was no paperback or kindle version until nine months later) and it’s perfect for listening to, not least because of Ell Potter’s astonishingly powerful narration. I strongly recommend that you let Ell Potter tell you Winter’s story. Click on the SoundCloud link below and you’ll get a taste of what I’m talking about.
Alex Callister is a British writer, based out of London. After reading History at Oxford she worked in The City as a technology futures analyst.
Her debut novel, Winter Dark (2019), was released as an Audible Original narrated by Ell Potter and became the bestselling Audible Thriller of the Year.
It launched a series of thrillers featuring Winter, a hacker, snowboarder and card-counting gambler, who was recruited in her teens to be a GCHQ agent.
Ell is an actor, writer, and award-winning narrator. Ell read English at Oxford, graduated with first class honours and won the Nigel Smith Memorial Prize for English Literature.
While training at LAMDA, she was named Audible’s ‘Breakout Star’ and her debut audiobook ‘ Winter Dark’ was nominated for an Audie. She has since recorded extensively and won, multiple AudioFile Earphones Awards.
She is also a comedian: her most recent show FITTER sold out its debut 5-week run at London’s Soho Theatre and was nominated for an Offie.