Mapping Winter: A character and a world that will stick with me

Mapping Winter by Marta Randall science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsMapping Winter by Marta Randall science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsMapping Winter by Marta Randall

Mapping Winter (2019) is Marta Randall’s reworking of her 1983 novel, The Sword of Winter. (Randall talks more about the story behind the book here.) Its release as Mapping Winter was followed shortly by the all-new sequel The River South, with the two novels making up the RIDERS GUILD series. It’s a secondary-world fantasy, but without magic; I was about two-thirds of the way through the book when I realized, “Huh, I don’t think there’s been any magic!” What it does have is a nation poised between feudalism and industrialization.

The Riders are a venerable organization of messengers who travel around the country of Cherek. They bring the news, spread proclamations, and are responsible for surveying and mapping unknown terrain that they encounter in their journeys. Cherek is moving into a Steam Age, and with the advent of the telegraph and the railroad, the Riders Guild faces obsolescence. Its survival owes more to protocol than to necessity at this point; news of major national events is not considered official until a Rider has announced it.

Some lords have put their Riders to other uses. One such is Cadoc, lord of Dalmorat, who requires his Rider to arrest political prisoners who have been targeted by Cadoc’s spy network. This Rider, Kieve, is our heroine, and she hates this part of her job. She’d much rather be exploring and mapping. Cadoc is dying, and when he dies, Kieve will be released from her oath. She plans to leave court and never look back. But Cadoc’s heirs, who are gathering at the castle to jockey for the succession, have other plans for Kieve. She is the most visible symbol of the spy network, and if she swears fealty to one of the heirs, it will be a huge show of power for that heir. And some might be willing to kill to force her hand …

The River South (Riders Guild Book 2) Kindle Edition by Marta Randall (Author)

Sequel

Kieve is a fascinating character, well-rounded and with hidden depths. She’s gruff, and she’s emotionally reserved even in her internal monologue, so it can take a little while to get a handle on her and what she truly cares about. She’s sexually frank, but not much interested in swoony romance. She spent part of her childhood among a hunter-gatherer people who live to the north of Cherek, and this has shaped her worldview in various ways. Most of all, she’s trying to make an honorable life for herself in a snakepit of competing agendas. (I’d like to have a beer with her, but I think she’d probably find me wanting.) She’s not averse to having a little fun, though — there’s a nifty scavenger hunt scene with her and some castle guards, which at the time mostly seems like some welcome comic relief, but also introduces some important information for later.

The plot begins as something of a travel or adventure story, as Kieve stops in a remote mountain town and buys an enslaved boy, Pyrs, to save him from his abusive owner. She’s not quite sure what to do with him, though, as she doesn’t actually want a bondslave. The dangerous trek through the mountains brings Kieve and Pyrs closer, in a familial sense, than she’s comfortable with. She finds herself wanting to set him up in a better life, but that’s not as easy as it sounds. When the two reach Cadoc’s island castle, Sterk, Mapping Winter’s story becomes a political fantasy with all the intrigue and maneuvering that implies, and now Kieve has a vulnerability if anyone figures out she cares about this child. Finally, the narrative shifts to a country-house mystery when a snowstorm traps all of the feuding nobles and their servants on Sterk with a killer on the loose.

It’s a slow burn that gradually builds to unbearable tension, written in crisp, vivid prose that rewards careful reading. (There’s a lot that happens in subtext here.) In the end, it’s bittersweet, with Kieve getting some but not all of what she wanted, and several hard-hitting deaths along the way. Randall has created a character and a world that will stick with me, and I enjoyed getting to know them. I look forward to returning to Cherek in The River South.

Published in July 2019. In the frozen land of Cherek, Lord Cadoc Marubin lies dying and chaos threatens the land. During his four decades in power he had held Dalmorat Province in an iron grip, for which his heirs now contend. Cherek is poised on the brink of new-world advancements in culture and technology, but Cadoc’s choice could deny his people that bright fate and seal Dalmorat in darkness. Kieve Rider, sworn to Cadoc’s service, detests both the man she serves and the oath that binds her to his evils. Yet by that same oath it falls upon her to act as lynchpin in Cadoc’s naming of a new heir. Embroiled in the complexities of character, corruption and political intrigue, Kieve struggles to trust anyone, not least herself. Mapping Winter is a dynastic fantasy thriller, with a promise of steampunk at its labyrinthine heart. First published as The Sword of Winter in 1983, Mapping Winter has been extensively revised to fit the author’s originally intended vision.

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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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7 comments

  1. Jana Nyman /

    This sounds lovely!

    • Kelly Lasiter /

      It is! I actually liked the sequel even better; you get to see more of the world, and the heroine is more… approachable? I think I’ll look up Randall’s backlist.

  2. Lenora Rose /

    I LOVED The Sword of Winter. The backstory of the creation of that book (and cause of Randall’s subsequent departure from SFF for this long) fills me with rage now. Off to find Mapping Winter, because if the book that went through such a hatchet job of editing was as good as it was, the reworking almost can’t help be excellent.

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