Book Review: The Winter Road by Adrian Selby
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Orbit (November 13, 2018)
Length: 496 pages
I feel like 2018 was the year of second chances. When I finished The Winter Road, I had a hard time believing this was by the same author as Snakewood, a debut that…well, I thought was okay, but didn’t exactly love. But whether it was the change in protagonist or Adrian Selby has just seriously upped his game (to be honest, it’s probably both), this book worked much better for me than his first one.
The Winter Road actually takes place in the same world as Snakewood, but you don’t need to have read the former as a prerequisite to jump right in. Granted, some prior knowledge of the unique magic system might be helpful, but it is not required, since Selby does an exemplary job easing new readers into this strange new world of fight brews and weird chemistry without being unpleasantly forceful with all the details. Much of the story takes place in a region known as the Circle, aptly named because it is miles of sprawling forest and wilderness, inhabited by various warring clans arranged in a roughly circular pattern around a central area known as the Almet. No one has ever tried to unite the clans before, but that isn’t stopping Teyr Amondsen, a retired mercenary who is determined to lead a merchant caravan through treacherous territory she used to call home, forging a trade road which she believes will benefit all those who live in the Circle.
However, not everyone shares Teyr’s grand vision. An ambitious warlord named Khiese has risen to power, and he’s not interested in unification as much as he is in subjugation, ordering his army to use brutal force against anyone who doesn’t capitulate to his rule. To build her road, Teyr and her caravan which includes her family and friends will need to cross a key area of the Almet, which Khiese has claimed for himself. As their two groups clash, Teyr is not about to back down in the face of Khiese’s threats, causing the warlord to become even more violent and bloodthirsty in his attacks.
For me, the highlight of this book was Teyr Amondsen. Leaving aside the fact she’s awesome and one tough cookie, Adrian Selby also did an incredible job of writing her character. Looking back at my review of Snakewood, one of my biggest criticisms was the huge number of characters and the need for frequent switches between points-of-view, which caused no small amount of confusion and pacing issues. In contrast though, The Winter Road was handled much more smoothly, in large part because we got to concentrate mostly on Teyr’s journey and development. She’s also got an amazing voice, which probably isn’t too surprising, since from reading Snakewood, I gathered that being able to create an authentic, “in-character” persona is one of Selby’s strongest talents.
Not only did we get an interesting protagonist in Teyr, we also got an in-depth exploration of who she really is. I liked that her character was a study of dualities: a former mercenary, her body having been ravaged and ruined by effects of the fight brews, she is resilient, strong and tenacious, and yet she also has a soft and caring side that comes through when she is with her lover Aude and their son. I think that’s why this book got me so hard in the feels. Because things don’t really go well for Teyr. Some truly horrible, gut-wrenching things happen to her and her family. And seeing such a courageous, strong-willed and strong-minded individual brought so low, only to watch her get up again and refuse to be cowed, it was an emotional roller coaster that was rough and difficult—but oh so worth it. By the time I was through to the epilogue, after reading about the aftermath through a series of letters from Teyr to Aude, I’m not ashamed to admit I was practically in tears.
I also loved that this book took place in the same world as Snakewood, as it meant bringing back some of my favorite world-building elements, like the concept of “paying the color”—a euphemism used to describe the terrible physiological costs of using brews. These alchemical mixtures can enhance the user’s abilities, but the powerful effects they grant are fleeting, and like a drug, coming off the high can also give you one hell of a crash. Brew-using mercs like Teyr must live with the consequences of their choices for the rest of their lives, an aspect that adds another layer of complexity to her character.
There were, of course, a few hitches. For the most part, Selby has improved on his storytelling by keeping things simple and streamlining the process, though his handling of the dual timeline was still on the shaky side, and once or twice, I lost track of when we were supposed to be. The nonlinear narrative could also explain why I felt the main story took a little too long to get off the ground, but that’s the extent of my complaints.
Overall, I really enjoyed The Winter Road. When I think about how I feel about this book versus how I felt about Snakewood, the difference is like night and day. One big reason for this is the uniqueness of Teyr Amondsen and her strength of personality. Because she was such an interesting protagonist, Adrian Selby was also able to inject a lot of emotional depth and nuance into her story, and the attention to her character development was bar none my favorite aspect of this novel. Teyr’s incredible saga about conquering the wilderness and taking on impossible odds in the face of a merciless enemy is the perfect canvas to create this grimdark fantasy masterpiece, and I loved every moment of it.