Mark Smith, The Road to Winter, Text Publishing, 27 June 2016, 240pp., $19.99 (pbk), ISBN: 9781925355123
As predicted in so much of our near future science fiction on film and page, the world has changed drastically. A plague has come, blamed on climate, blamed on refugees, but regardless of fault, it has altered society as it was and caused the start of a new world. Finn is a young man, around sixteen now, who has outlived his parents in the early years of the aftermath. He has been alone for a long time, basically self-sufficient and coping as well as can be expected. Then his world is turned upside down when Rose bursts into his life, fleeing from a danger than could overwhelm Finn along the way. And the threat is only just beginning.
The writing and pace of this book works very well, and I was engaged very quickly. There was only one element that gave me pause, as I read. Women were hit hardest by the world-killing plague, which isn’t a new idea – it sets up the very masculine drama that girls of childbearing age are essential and thus must be preserved at all costs. There are three ways this usually plays: the most rare is the one which sees women in control, taking charge by virtue of their scarcity and necessity; in the second, women are venerated, treated as queens on high, pampered and looked after; this book, however, takes the third path for the most part – women are to be captured, enslaved, used for breeding to ensure the future of the species. I will grant that our protagonist doesn’t see this as right or required, and deals with it quite sensitively, but it still is part of the narrative of the story, which is a bit off-putting for this reader.
Having said that, I was impressed by some of the world building that makes it obvious this isn’t quite our future. Smith carefully builds a slightly different world, with some thought-provoking commentary on refugees that is both insightful and heartbreaking. These are small, deft touches that make a difference to the way the book comes across, and work very well. It was also interesting that Finn has a speech impediment – it shouldn’t need to be remarked on, but I’m always pleased to see authors working to explore difference in one way or another, as I believe it is important to the readership to see people in all their diversity.
For all the end-of-the-world scenario that the book is built on, it is a surprisingly gentle read for the most part. There is indeed action and emotional highs and lows, but the characters are the driving force of the story, and are well drawn throughout. A deceptively easy read that will leave you contemplating the issues presented well after the last page is turned.
Reviewed by Tehani Wessely