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 …
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.