The Winter Road by Adrian Selby (Book Review)
Where do you begin with a book like this? I suppose, inevitably, with another book. Snakewood (reviewed here) was Selby’s 2016 debut, an ambitious, gritty, uncompromising standalone saga of old soldiers dying hard. It seemed poised to do great things, but proved perhaps too ambitious, too uncompromising, for mainstream success. I came across it a bit late, and loved it. I could see why it would never be for everyone, but it was definitely for me.
When I heard there was a new book coming (and sometimes we’re not that lucky), I couldn’t wait to see what the author did next with this world, where plants have super-enhancing properties but there’s no other “magic” as we’re used to in fantasy. When I heard it was going to be an origin story for one of the most notable forces encountered in Snakewood, I was even more excited. So, you could say I was a target audience, but also one burdened with expectation.
I was not disappointed.
The Winter Road is another standalone, set at least a century before Snakewood, and in a part of the world only mentioned in the previous book. You do not have to read Snakewood first, as the loose connection is really only spelled out at the end. In fact, this may be the better place to start. While there’s no hand-holding here as you are thrust into this world, there wasn’t any in Snakewood, either. What there is is a protagonist you can really get behind – which is good, because you have to follow her through all sorts of hell.
The Winter Road is the story of a remarkable woman, Teyr Amondson, a veteran soldier and wealthy merchant who has made the unthinkable decision to try to leave a lasting legacy of good for her people. This isn’t a story about fighting dark gods or overthrowing tyrants (though there is a tyrant to fight); it’s about progress, and its price.
Doesn’t sound grim or dark enough? Well, you don’t know how steep that price is, at least in the Circle. Selby creates a claustrophobic country, a wild plain hemmed in by sea and mountains, where families are bound by blood and honour into clans with a Scandi-Scottish feel. Amondsen, prodigal daughter of one of the clans, wants to drive a road across this untamed land to bring unity and prosperity back to her fractured people. So far, so ambitious.
She massively underestimates the task.
And this is key to Teyr Amondsen: she’s not perfect. She’s a good leader, but she doesn’t always make the right call. She’s a good fighter, but she needs help. She’s a good mother and a loving wife, but she’s married to her job and her ambition. She’s a survivor, but a dangerous woman to know, and to follow.
While she is the heart of the story, every character she meets – friend and foe, however briefly – is memorable. Selby does a great job, helped by Amondsen’s perspective, of making you care about her friends, and their almost inevitable deaths, and respect her enemies. Perhaps the main difference between this book and Snakewood is the presence of actual good, decent people. Some people make heroic – and tragic – decisions, while others are more pragmatic, and a few are right bastards (as you’d expect). It’s these stabs of light that keep you going through the dark times.
And this book still gets dark. It’s no spoiler to know things go wrong, because Selby shows you on the first page, splitting the narrative for the first part between the disaster and the recovery. The narrative, like Snakewood, is first-person and the voice is very much Amondsen’s own – brusque, grammatically flawed, matter-of-fact. Yet the emotion comes through and punches you in the gut. Selby does return to Snakewood’s epistolary style near the end, and without spoiling too much, this long epilogue is almost as tragic as everything that came before. In Selby’s world, nobody escapes without scars; everyone must “pay the colour”, as suffering the after-effects of the drug mixes is called.
This goes for the reader, too, but Selby’s books are drugs I’ll willingly take time and time again. They are different, dark, uncompromising, ambitious, but brilliant. Selby plays with the balance of light and dark, the contrast making each more powerful. There’s everything you could want from fantasy – cool “magic”, bloody action, howling villains, stubborn heroes, friendships, love, mysteries – all blended up into a heady brew that packs a punch like few others. If you love reading something a bit different, or are ready to find out what fantasy can do with shackles loosened, you really need to give this book a try.
And if you like it, there’s Snakewood waiting for you – and a third apparently in the works. I am in awe of these books, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.