The Winter Road is Adrian Selby’s second journey into the world he started with the excellent (albeit occasionally impenetrable) Snakewood. That said, this is a standalone, rather than a sequel, occurring generations before the events of the other book, and without any direct ties.
With that in mind, what is there to like about The Winter Road? Well, there’s the world. There’s the people in it. And there’s the story that they tell together. The narrative shines, as individuals feel hope and pain and regret and love and betrayal, against a backdrop which shapes them as much as they act upon it. Each is a part of a greater whole, and together they make something with real energy, real spark, and real humanity.
So, the world, then. In some ways, it’s a tightly coupled one. Families hold to their land. Some swear loyalty to others, and there’s the sense of a slowly evolving feudal sensibility. But the numbers involved seem relatively small, each family keeping an isolated holding, each family separated by hours or days from its nearest neighbour. What binds them is a web of blood, but it’s strained at the edges. That isolation is visible further up the chain as well. Though there is a family at the head of the society shown to the reader, they have a limit to their reach – there are sections of the surrounding land, ‘The Circle’ that are outside of their reach, that haven’t been contacted for generations. And in the distance are murmurings of larger, more centralised states, with standing armies and potentially acquisitive natures.
This is a world which is connected within itself, but not outside itself. Where there’s a sense of something lost, a knowledge that once, those missing parts of the Circle could be spoken to, eventually. Selby does an excellent job of showing us the wilderness of the Circle. Its land is vast, ans often hostile, with a penchant for semi-desolate plains, for snow, for people living in mountains and more than willing to drop a rock on your head if you might be carrying food. The prose carries a sweeping, stark, brutal grandeur, which matches the environment perfectly. You can feel the harsh crunch of the snow and the frost on your breath, or the slow thrum of verdant growth from the towering vegetation that is the mysterious stopped heart of the Circle.
And the road. It’s an actual road. Outposts flickering along it like candles in a gale, as it inches forward around the Circle, trying to reconnect everything that’s lost. This is a detailed, well thought out world, with its own history, culture and dreams, all of which help to inform the decisions of the people that live in it. It not only seems real in the instant that you read it, but has enough depth behind it to make you want to know more, as well.
Speaking of the people behind it – the protagonist of the tale is Teyr Amondsen. Teyr is a relative rarity, a woman who became a soldier. She’s also something more of a rarity, a soldier that came home alive, and came home rich. In a world where combat is typically hand-to hand, and where the ingestion of plant-based ‘brews’ provides seemingly supernatural strength and speed at the cost of a comedown and long term side-effects, actually surviving to spend your money is a novelty. But Teyr has come home.
The narrative has two interleaving layers – one, Teyr’s story as she starts on an expedition to help build out her great dream, her road. And one in the aftermath of that expedition, as she deals with the conseqeunces and what happens next. The earlier of those gives us a wonderful insight into a complicated woman. Tired of picking blood out from under her nails, not content to simply sit on her hands, she’s making something happen. There’s some wonderful subtexts here about why Teyr decides to go big or go home, why she wants to bring the Circle back together. It isn’t afraid to look at her relationships, her past, her family – they all tie together into a web of connections which help her feel human. Maybe this is someone doing the right thing, but they’re doing this specific right thing for their own reason, too – a history which is largely off the page, but which is masterfully implied for the reader to pick up and run with.
Speaking of family – Teyr’s relationship with her immediate family, a spouse and child, is a joy to read throughout. There’s a complex emotional boquet about it. Teyr is unashamed of lioving her man in part for his looks, and there’s a certain sexuality running through the undertones of their dialogue. But there’s also romance, affection, and a wry practicality in her dealings with both spouse and son which will probably be recognisable to many parents. It’s to Selby’s credit that the sense of love, the familial warmth that overruns Teyr when she looks on her family, is so palpable. You can taste the way she cares for them, feel their importance in every incidental gesture. There are silences, and arguments, and discussions, and moments of self doubt, Which makes it all feel the more alive, the more real. It’s a relationship which feels genuine, a partnership doing its best, and even on the occasions where it stumbles, the interaction in this family is always a fantastic read.
Tetr is happy, at least some of the time, but it isn’t all she is, to be sure. The darker side is there, one which is willing to take fight-brews, to break heads, to do whatever she has to do in order to meet her goals. But if she’s sometimes (literally) lethally direct, she’s never less than sympathetic. This is bold, honest characterisation, drawn with a finely detailed brush. Admittedly, to stretch the metaphor, the brush is sometimes covered in someone’s blood. But it has an emotional sharpness and intensity which mean that understanding Teyr is simultaneously very easy and a long term project. The way she is, the end-point of her pasts, leaves her raw and broken and healing and husbanding regrets and living in hope. What all that makes Teyr, is alive. I cared about her story. I wanted to see where she’d been, and who she’d become on her journey. I was drawn in to her relationships, to empathise, to sympathise, to condemn, to understand. Teyr is a pitch-perfect protagonist, a multi-faceted woman who doesn’t take any crap, lives with her demons, and keeps on moving forward from a world which scarred and still scars her – and is also a loving spouse and caregiver, and a veteran killer.
Basically, Teyr’s brilliant.
The plot? Well, I won’t get into it too much. I will say that some of the narrative complexities of Snakewood have been pared away. Though there are the interweaving narratives as the core of the story, connecting them is fairly straightforward, and it shouldn’t be too difficult to keep track of what’s happening, and to whom. The rest? Well, I’ll let it be a surprise. But there’s a lot in here, that’s for sure. Teyr is building a road, in a land which hasn’t had much use for trade and talk, and may even seem absurdly proud of its isolation. That means politics. Which in a world connected by blood, also means family. But there are other, larger problems on the horizon, and Teyr really has no idea what she’s getting into.
There’s some fantastically kinetic, dirty, bloody fight scenes which made me wince. There’s acts of casual villainy that provoked a gasp or the occasional swear. But this isn’t entirely grim. It’s not all bad people doing bad things for bad reasons. There’s hope in here, there’s people doing good because they can, trying to do the right thing, and sometimes even succeeding. There’s struggles against enforced cultural norms, on all sides, and a fair swathe of betrayal, heroism and sacrifice. It’s also Teyr’s story, the story of where she is, how she got there, and the price she paid. The narrative serves as an emotional stiletto, its emotional edge surrounded by hard words and hard fighting, making a book which it was impossible to put down.
This one is an absolutely cracking read, and I’d suggest you go pick it up right now.