BOOK REVIEW: The Road to Winter by Mark Smith
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell
Young Adult / Dystopia / Survival
Since a deadly virus and the violence that followed wiped out his parents and most of his community, Finn has lived alone on the rugged coast with only his loyal dog Rowdy for company.
He has stayed alive for two winters—hunting and fishing and trading food, and keeping out of sight of the Wilders, an armed and dangerous gang that controls the north, led by a ruthless man named Ramage.
But Finn’s isolation is shattered when a girl runs onto the beach. Rose is a Siley—an asylum seeker—and she has escaped from Ramage, who had enslaved her and her younger sister, Kas. Rose is desperate, sick, and needs Finn’s help. Kas is still missing somewhere out in the bush.
And Ramage wants the girls back—at any cost.
The Road to Winter is an unforgettable novel about survival, honour, friendship and love. It announces an extraordinary new talent.
Everything up until now has been like a Boys’ Own adventure story I could have read when I was a kid – the clever boy outsmarting the bad guys and saving the girl. But this is real, this is holding a blade at a man’s throat and looking him in the face. His eyes are opening and closing and there’s blood gurgling in his throat as he tries to breathe. I know I can kill him with just a bit of pressure on the knife, but even though I feel that he doesn’t deserve to live I can’t bring myself to do it. Maybe it’s Dad telling me there’s always something good in everyone, or maybe it’s something deep inside me that makes the decision.
There’s an underlying theme in this novel about asylum seekers, or “Sylies”. About the way they’re seen as less than human and the cause of all troubles by some entitled white folk, and how they might go on to become slaves in this dystopic future.
It’s really great that this theme is there, and that this novel deals with the end of the world, à la The Road, but in an Australian setting.
Unfortunately, though it does have this racial issue that is as relevant today as it is in the hypothetical future presented here… there’s nothing much to this novel.
Despite the brevity of this book, I did consider setting it aside a few times because it lacked a lot of emotion and, as such, any real compulsion for me to keep reading. There were some great passages within, but on the whole the voice often felt a little young for someone who has been through so much. It is perhaps this young and simplistic voice that robs it of a lot of the potential emotion, and makes it hard to really invest in what’s going on.
There’s not much in the way of world-building; not much information about the disease, how it happened, or what it meant for those infected (other than “death”); not much in terms of character building or exploration of his motivations; and not much that is truly different from the “remains of civilisation” style of apocalypse stories we have seen before.
The characters deal with a sudden and dramatic loss of people, a loss of civilisation, and a certain amount of ongoing fear of the unknown, whether it be the dangers associated with other survivors or a possible resurgence of the virus that destroyed the world they once knew. There are the power hungry people, probably on the wrong side of the law when civilisation was still a thing, who see this as their opportunity to get ahead and rule their little corner of the world and all who exist within it.
The two things that come to mind that differentiate this story are the asylum seeker element, and the fact that these are kids surviving mostly on their own, where oftentimes these books can be from the point of view of a child, but they have adults there to help them, but these elements aren’t enough to make this an earth-shattering, must-read novel. When telling a story that has been told to death (no pun intended) in various ways, it needs to have something to make it stand out. This one turned the race and subsequent background of a couple of the characters into an ongoing message which was good, but it wasn’t enough to keep the book afloat.
The Road to Winter is part dystopia, part survival story, but never really ends up delivering on either front, which is such a shame to say about an Aussie-based story in either vein.
I will be keeping an eye out for future books in this series in the hope that they might be a little more inventive and unique, and I would recommend this book for readers who like quieter end-of-the-world stories, but only if you haven’t read enough of them to render this one “the next in a long line”.
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