Review: The Road to Winter by Mark Smith

9781925355123It’s always dangerous, in my mind, coming out of the gate with a first novel in an intended young adult series, and immediately comparing it to one of the pinnacles of Australian YA: John Marsden’s Tomorrow series. But that’s precisely what Text Publishing has done with Mark Smith’s The Road to Winter. And y’know what, though I hate to admit that I saw a slither of truth any marketing shtick, I’ve got to say: the comparison, in this case, is earned. But at the same time, it feels like a novel crafted for that same audience – by which I mean, it’s aimed at the ‘older’ end of the YA spectrum, and based on some of its content, is possibly better suited to an adult audience. Which puts me in a tough spot: as a reader, I loved The Road to Winter, would highly recommend it, and reckon you should reserve a copy at your local independent bookshop. As a bookseller, I’m a tad perplexed as to who’d I’d pitch this to. On the one hand: a visceral book about survival, packed with plenty of action, and a dash of romance – perfect for a YA audience! But when it delves into pregnancy and childbirth, I’m suddenly not so sure…

A couple years back, a deadly virus – and the consequent violence – wiped out most of humanity. Sixteen-year-old Finn lost his parents and his whole community, and since then he’s lived alone with his dog Rowdy in his hometown on the coast. He has survived thanks to his father’s preparations, and an uncanny knack for hunting and fishing. Seriously, Bear Grylls has got nothing on this kid. But starvation and injury aren’t the only threats out there: there are other survivors, some of whom don’t care to trade their wares; a particularly nasty crew called the Wilders, led by the ruthless Ramage. So far, Finn’s stayed out of their way, kept to himself, a lonely, but contented existence.

Until! (Because there’s always an until!)

One day Finn comes across a girl on the beach. Her name is Rose, and she is a Siley – an asylum seeker – who is on the run from Ramage. She was on the run with her sister Kas, but the two got split up during their escape, and now she needs Finn’s help to find her. It’s not that Rose is unwilling to do the job herself: she’s just in no condition to be stalking through bushland. So Finn agrees to help this girl she barely knows – and her sister – and in doing so he paints a target on his back. And Ramage isn’t the kind of guy you want hunting you down.

Finn’s a brilliant protagonist: your typical sixteen-year-old Aussie kid who flits between vehement self-assuredness and typical teenage uncertainness. This is a kid who has survived two winters on his own, is obviously very capable and courageous; on the other, he’s wounded by the remnants of the life he once knew, and the death of his parents. He’s tough on the outside, sure – but there’s a sympathetic undercurrent he’s rarely had need to let slip since the virus decimated humanity.

The Road to Winter is unashamedly the start of a longer epic. It sets up the pieces, provides insight into the world, and will leave readers desperate for the next chapter in the characters’ lives. I loved it, and reckon plenty of others will, too – I’m just not sure how many of those readers are going to be in the YA bracket. Could be I’m out of touch with that audience – I am not an avid reader of the genre, and you might well be reading this thinking, You idiot! YA is supposed to push the boundaries! So I guess I’ll wait to see how that audience responds. Hopefully resoundingly – I want sequels!

But removing the bookseller part of my brain, as a reader, who cares nought for genre or intended audience: The Road to Winter is great. Fast-paced, relentless, poignant. What more could you want?

One thought on “Review: The Road to Winter by Mark Smith

  1. I will be teaching this to year 9 boys in 2021 for the first time. I’ve just finished reading it. I couldn’t help but wonder if there were any other “big life issues” that could have been included! Whilst I was curious as I read it, I found myself thinking – Gee, there u go boys! A novel that includes all ur worst fears and wonderings!” Felt like maybe the shock value was pushed a little too hard for my liking. 🤷🏻‍♀️

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