The greatest empire of them all began with a road.
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 terrorising its people. Teyr’s battles may not be over yet . . .
All roads lead back to war.
The Winter Road is a book which ticks a lot of boxes. It’s quite action-heavy, with a fair few exciting fight scenes. It has a main character who is both sympathetic and pretty badass. It has a unique world with its own troubles, societies, and magic. And it has a plot which, although pretty simple on the face of it, is engaging and gives our main character plenty of room to shine.
Teyr Amondsen is a mercenary-turned-merchant who wishes to construct a road to link together the clans who live in the Circle. Looking at the map below, it’s pretty clear to see where that name comes from. While most of the land is forested, hilly, or mountainous, there is a ring of roughly flat land surrounding a forest known as the Almet. It’s on the outer edges of this ring that most of the clans make their home, and it’s commonly regarded as a dangerous place filled with bandits and war.
Teyr’s hope is that her road will bring some peace and prosperity to the circle. It will provide a quicker and safer way to travel and will encourage trade between the clans, which will in turn discourage conflict between them.
Unfortunately for Teyr, a warlord known as Khiese has risen in the Circle. He unites the clans through fear and violence, and sets himself firmly against the current political system, and by extension against Teyr’s road.
Teyr herself is a wonderful character to read about. She’s a bit of a twist on the stoic female warrior archetype, though with a lot more emotion and honesty. She’s more than capable in a fight, though she’s a few years past her prime and so has the disadvantage against younger, quicker, stronger foes. But more importantly than that, she’s isn’t as emotionally stunted as so many characters like her seem to be. She isn’t afraid to love. On the contrary, she loves fiercely and publicly. She loves her adopted son, and she loves his father. And it’s that love which is the driving force for much of this story.
The book has two interwoven timelines: the present, and the past. If you’ve ever read Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire trilogy, then this is a similar sort of structure. The present shows Teyr broken and alone, having been nursed back to something vaguely resembling health by a mysterious people known as the Oskoro. The past shows Teyr setting off with a merchant caravan (and her family) to build her road. In both timelines, she makes use of “brews” — plant-based drinks which grant the drinker heightened awareness and physical abilities — to fight the battles that need to be fought.
The writing style is something which I feel may be a little divisive. The story is told in the first-person, with quite a bit of real-world and in-world slang. Some readers may find that this helps with their immersion, but it took me a few chapters to become fully engaged, and so my emotional response to the opening few chapters was a little muted as a result.
The Winter Road throws you into the deep end with very little information, leaving you to figure out what’s going on through context or through the occasional piece of exposition. There was a lot of action right from the start, but the character work took a little while to come to the forefront. By the end though, plot and character were interwoven seamlessly into one of the best and most emotional endings I’ve had the pleasure of reading this year.
To put it simply, The Winter Road is grimdark with a heart. There’s the oppressive atmosphere that grimdark fans will be familiar with, but there’s also an undercurrent of genuine love.
This is a book for those who love well-crafted worlds and sympathetic characters, and aren’t afraid of dark subject matter. To see if the writing style is a match for your tastes, I’d recommend heading over to Orbit’s website to check out the first chapter.
Thank you to Orbit for a copy of this book, which I received in exchange for a fair and honest review.