The Winter Road by Adrian Selby

I would like to thank the publisher for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review

Publisher – Tor

Published – Out Now

Price - £8.99 paperback

The Circle is 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 and a crew of skilled mercenaries, Amondsen embarks on a dangerous mission to forge a road across the wilderness that was once her home. But a warlord rises in the wilds of the Circle, uniting its clans and terrorising its people.

Teyr will find that all roads lead back to war.

Back in the 90’s we all scoffed at how Star Wars the Phantom Menace said all the galactic upset was down to a trade dispute. These days that’s a lot less funny isn’t it? Adrian Selby has in this excellent fantasy tale given us a fascinating lead charce6r who dreams of uniting the coastal towns with the settlements of the inner wilderness instead finds that she faces an equally determined foe leading to heartbreak, revenge and fierce battles.  This gives us one of the most exciting and well-crafted stories in fantasy I’ve read.

The whole story is told via Teyr who may be one of the most intriguing and three-dimensional lead characters I’ve seen in a while.  She comes from The Circle herself from one of the leading families, but she quickly realised she didn’t want to settle down and have kids, so she left home and eventually joined became a mercenary and ‘paid the colour’. This is the concept that all battling soldiers would take assorted natural concoctions that would both boost people’s strengths, senses and ability to heal but would have the to deal with consequences after the fight – rages, withdrawal symptoms and an unusual skin tone (the colour). Teyr was a fierce fighter and achieved riches but again she felt she wanted more rather than to be come one of the poor veterans dotted around the country and so the last few years she has built learning another becoming a merchant and slowly establishing a growing network of roads and outposts and now one of the more powerful people in her area.  She has settled down in middle age with her warm and intelligent partner Aude and his son Mosa. But now the family unit is all going on the expedition into the Circle.

The first half of the book uses an unusual but very effective story structure. We find Teyr running for her life, heavily injured and emotionally devastated by events but the alternating chapters tell us the story of the expedition and how it falls apart. Selby lets the story breathe so we see a lot of joy/laughing amongst the company first but slowly little events such as mention of the mysterious whiteboys and Khaise who leads them slowly ramps up the tension for this small band in a wilderness far from help. Each settlement they encounter becomes a trial to see who can be trusted. In the alternating chapters Teyr tries to gather herself back up as she finds children from an attacked village and makes it her mission to get them to safety for her own redemption. It’s a well-constructed section – building up the reader’s knowledge of the world; allowing us to see both sides of Teyr – intelligent leader and fierce fighter while providing heart stopping drama as revelations unfurl as to what eventually happened.

The second half of the book has this defeated version of Teyr being given the chance for revenge on her enemy. Teyr joins forces with some of her old troupe to enter the Circle for the what will be the last time and seek revenge. This plot is reminiscent of a revenge western of a small but very skilled band versus a huge army. As the reader is now emotionally invested in Teyr we are both cheering her on but also incredibly worried that she will not live for much longer.  Full of action scenes and a cast of warriors who we again get to know and either fear or understand. This is helped by having a very unuusal antagonist in the figure of Khaise – he is shown to be fiercely intelligent, tactical and with a long-term plan to rule the whole area.  As Teyr notes he would have probably made a fine king but he set himself up in violent opposition to Teyr and so they now are working hard to destroy each other. Khiese is ruthless and merciless but you never feel he is going to be an easy victory, and this is the type of book where many good people do not survive.  There is also the mystery of the group who live in the centre of the Circle known as the Oskoro who have embraced the power of brews so much they are allegedly no longer fully human.  Teyr seeks their blessing to build the road but they may also see her as a means to an end too...

I was completely sucked into this story and was heavily impressed by Selby’s approach to the world and the style he adopted to tell the story. Firstly, the character of Teyr is wonderful to read and understand.  She is not a woman of letters, but she is a great storyteller and the form she does gets to show us as a woman who when we first meet her is confident and in love but also, we see her later hurt and self-doubting – this book is the story to her finding herself again. Selby reminds me of Robin Hobb’s ability to give us a character with a lot of emotional depth and complexity and it’s her narration that propels the story. Alongside that a refreshing world where women are not viewed as only fit for raising children and in most armies, we see we notice women have key roles as guards or soldiers. This book feels as if it pays a lot of attention to fantasy’s past and its future.  I think my one warning is as everything is in Teyr’s voice she uses a lot of unique local terms to describe things for example a spouse is a keep, or a mat is a dut.  There is a bit of a learning curve for the reader but stuck with it and you naturally can work out the meanings and for me it adds further depth to the story.

Its tempting to read this as grimdark – and yes there are sections where people are dark, and some scenes are definitely grim. But this book and as are now seeing others such as Anna Smith Spark or Anna Stephens is for me pointing towards perhaps the next evolution of the grimdark world. It’s not a cynical world where everyone is amoral for no reason.  My view is we are seeing grimdark aspects such as complex characters and for this story the consequences of violence now being added in to what is more an epic fantasy setting.  I think Selby has created a standout immersive tale that fans of epic fantasy and grimdark should both be picking up.  I am definitely looking out for what he writes next.