Author: Adrian Selby
Publication Date: November 13, 2018
Rating: 5 of 5 Stars
The Circle – a thousand miles of perilous forests and warring clans. No one has ever tamed such treacherous territory before, but ex-soldier Teyr Amondsen, veteran of a hundred battles, is determined to try.
With a merchant caravan protected by a crew of skilled mercenaries, Amondsen embarks on a dangerous mission to forge a road across the untamed wilderness that was once her home. But a warlord rises in the wilds of the Circle, uniting its clans and terrorizing its people. Teyr’s battles are far from over . . .”
I finished The Winter Road last night, set the book down, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath. I had to collect myself a moment – had to pause and digest it. The Winter Road is a story of the pain and heartbreak that underlies human achievement. It’s the kind of book I haven’t read in a while, like you’re drawing back the curtain on some grand event in history where everyone knows the glorious result, only to discover the grim truth about how it came to be. One where the reader is pulled through the wringer along with the characters…you may be new on the other side, but the pain and disfigurement of the experience lingers, some parts of you are left in the bucket, and you’ll never go back to the way things were before.
Let me take a moment to add a bit more detail to the book blurb so you get a better idea of the plot. Teyr Amdonsen is an ex-mercenary who has returned to her native land, a place called The Circle, and set up shop as a merchant. A pretty successful merchant now. She has a dream of building a road and a series of outposts connecting all the clans within The Circle to increase trade and communication between them, thereby bringing greater peace and prosperity to everyone. It’s bold plan given how insular the clans have become over the years. She also hopes to restore relations with they mysterious Oskoro, the people who live in the Almet, the forest at the center of the circle where all the clans used to gather. With the blessing of the chief of all the clans Teyr sets out with her family, soldiers, mercenaries, and other merchants in a caravan (called a van in the story) to unite the Circle like it hasn’t been for generations. But there’s a new warlord bent on taking over the circle who will get in their way and may prevent road from ever being built.
The Winter Road is an interesting book in terms of Selby’s narrative choices. It is broken up into three parts each with their own narrative arc and story, but combining to form one great arc. It’s told primarily from a first person point of view, that of Teyr Amondsen. This is true up until the end when the point of view and character voice changes to an epistolary format. Selby also changes up the narrative time frame throughout the novel – there’s a back and forth between the present and past in part one, then a shift to full present in part two, and then a shift to something like a future present in part three, the very last being a look back from some distant future. It was a bold narrative decision to structure the book this way and it really pays off in the end though I recognize some readers may not like it.
These narrative choices have a major impact on the pacing of the book. In part one there is a constant shift from present to past (or Now and Then) and back again. Here you are pulled back and forth with the pace in each chapter moving quick enough, but the overall story slowly moving forward. This is effective however because of the way Selby uses this device to reveal background and motivation. In doing so he creates a tension and feeling of foreboding that is used for maximum effect. You know something horrible is coming, you can even guess what it is, but when it comes it still hits you like a warhammer to the chest. Then the pace picks up with part two, as the build up from part one leads to the major climax of the story. But there’s still some 70 pages to go and one more part. Things slow down once again in part three where we get the falling action and the story starts to come to a close. Here your hoping for some happy resolution, knowing it can’t really happen because of all that’s come before. With the epistolary part of the narrative tacked on to the end of part three, really as a part in itself, the pace changes again – no real action now and the pace remains slow but for maximum effect as the long arc of the story is brought to a close and you realize it’s something more than you thought at first.
The world building is really well done. This is due in part to things like setting, and the magic system, and in part to writing style and voice Selby gives the characters. The story is set almost entirely within The Circle, a hard country perhaps on the periphery of more “civilized” lands. This becomes evident right away as Teyr’s goal is to build a single road to unite everyone. It’s a land of plains, and forests, foothills and mountains, beautiful in a very rugged sense. It’s people form clans with clan chiefs, never venturing far from their theits (villages). Their sense of belonging first to a local family and clan whose identity is woven into a “tapestry”, then to a larger idea of a people within the Circle along with the description of the land brings to the mind a confined closeness as if the events of the larger world are almost inconsequential to the every day life of those who live there. Almost…but not quite.
The magic system is designed around plants. It isn’t really a magic system per se but that’s an easy description. Plants are harvested and ground into “brews” that are consumed to give extraordinary strength and fighting abilities. They hone the senses into an almost altered sense of awareness, almost like drugs. Well…a lot like drugs because after the high you get from using them you have to “pay the color” when you come down, experiencing pain and the shakes and and after too much use (or abuse) your skin takes on new color hues.
Selby’s writing style really gives the reader a sense of place too. It is rugged like the land in which the story is set. This is especially evident in the use of language and voice for the characters. One prime example is in subject-verb agreement where the words “was” and “were” are used in grammatically incorrect ways. Selby also gives the region it’s own vocabulary with words like “keep” for spouse, “duts” for kids, and “rope” for family lineage. All of this combines to solidify the feeling of place he gives to the narrative, strengthening the impact the events of the narrative have on the mind and heart of the reader.
And speaking of characters…Teyr Amondsen is fantastic. She’s strong, resilient, smart, successful and no pushover. A great fighter who is a little past her prime, but still a force to be reckoned with. But she’s by no means a Mary-Sue. Lots of really bad stuff happens to her and she suffers, and the reader suffers with and through her. She perseveres however in spite of it all because she has one strong motivation…revenge. She’s able to keep coming back not because of her skills and fighting ability (which are both great), but because she is helped a lot along the way by others, and because of what may be her most defining quality, an unyielding refusal to give up in the face of defeat.
Then there’s the story itself, the thing that draws a reader in and captures the mind. The Winter Road is many things. It’s a story of purpose, telling of Teyr Amondsen’s desire to build a road connecting her homeland to itself, an attempt to unify a fractured people. It’s a story of revenge, telling of Teyr’s need to exact vengeance on those who hurt and wronged her, her loved ones, and her people. It’s a story full of intense action scenes – gritty, hard, and gripping – where you are caught up in the harsh realities of combat with sword and spear and bow, and death comes quick, and brutal, and easy. It’s a story about hurt and loss that the reader sees coming in the distance that one can’t fully prepare for. It’s a story about the void such hurt and loss leaves within us and the distance it puts between us that no amount of time can fully heal. And it’s a story of origins, about the true story of how things came to be, though you don’t know it at first.
I’m still processing this book. It has the stabby-stabby and it has the feels. Many of the things I liked about it will put others off. There are elements of its style and presentation I know some readers won’t like. They were done with a purpose though and Selby succeeds in accomplishing what he set out to do. It isn’t often I can clearly see what’s coming in a story and have it impact me the way this one did. Because truth be told I only saw a part of what was coming. It’s like Selby feinted with his left which was still a straight shot to the face, but then when my head snapped back down and I raised my arms to block the next punch he hit me with a blow to the stomach which sent me to my knees. Then he left me there struggling to catch my breath, allowing me to contemplate all of what just happened, and as I got back to my feet still a little wobbly he was gone, having left me with not a lesson but a gift…a heavy one that will weigh on me a while.