It is difficult to say whether The Sword of Winter is more of a fantasy with science fiction elements, or a science fiction novel with fantasy elements. The technology is steam-level, with telegraphs. It’s a book that is strong on character interactions and political intrigue, with some fascinating worldbuilding elements. I first read this book back in junior high, and it has been one of my on again, off again favorites for years. It doesn’t seem to be in print, but it’s a relatively easy book to find.
The story revolves around Gambin a dying tyrant and his relationship with his personal messenger, a woman named Lyeth. Gambin has yet to name an heir, but wants Lyeth to support and work for his son. Lyeth would really much rather return to her guild and have nothing more to do with Jentesi province, because she despises Gambin and what he’s done to her guild.Lyeth is a Rider, and her job is to act as both messenger and explorer/cartographer. Gambin however, has been using the Riders as the visible hands of his secret police. Because this, there has been a great deal of hatred directed at Riders in general, and Lyeth in specific. (This is the primary, though not the only reason why she hates Gambin.) A major theme of this book involves new ways versus old, and one person’s resistance to her guild being “repurposed,” into secret police.
On her way back from a mission she runs into a child named Emris who decides to take out his hatred of Riders on her horse. In retaliation, she decides to put a scare into the boy, and rides off with him. This backfires somewhat when Emris demands to go with her, because he wants to find out what happened to his parents, who had been arrested by Riders when he was much younger. Lyeth does not in any way want to help him, but when she gets a face full of ice, she has to rely on his help in order to get back home. Since he helped her, she feels obliged to return the favor.
When she gets back to Jentesi castle, she finds herself in the middle of the royal succession. Gambin is on his death bed, refusing to name an heir. His potential heirs are waiting for him to die, court intrigue is turning deadly, and for some reason, Lyeth has been dragged into the conflict between the heirs, each of whom seem determined to have her on their side. This book has a lot of interesting twists and turns to it, and is a very entertaining read.