History, they say, is written by the victors. Yet when it comes to fiction, there’s something particularly special about those books that bring to life the people on the other side of these victories; those whose voices may otherwise be erased by the histories of conquerors.
This is certainly the case with A Winter War, the latest novel from Tim Leach.
Following on from his brilliant book, Smile of the Wolf, Leach has swapped the freezing winters of medieval Iceland for the frozen land beyond the Danube; the land of the ancient Sarmatians. It speaks to Leach’s impressive authorship that he can once again bring us, as readers, so easily into the world of an ancient culture of which precious little is known.
He does this not least through vivid descriptions that transport us into the harsh, often unforgiving; but nonetheless beautiful world of the Steppe. As we have come to expect from Leach, there is a certain Hemmingway-esque element to his writing that balances simplicity with the extraordinarily complex.
Indeed, it is in the complexities of the characters of A Winter War that brings such connection, as a reader, to the novel. We find this in the shame and hope that our protagonist, Kai, carries with him; the dishonour he feels so deeply that in turn leads him to repeatedly pursue honourable (if not necessarily the smartest) courses of action. And we find it in the shifting relationships between Kai, Bahadur, and Arite; as loyalties and feelings change, and feelings of love are tinged with betrayal.
Despite the historical chasm in time between the events of the novel and now, there are many parallels for readers to draw that feel extremely relevant. Indeed, in reading A Winter War, it is striking that we begin amongst a people who are facing the end of their civilisation – the end of their history. In this sense, it bears a striking resemblance to the place we find ourselves: facing as we of course do, the catastrophic breakdown of our planet’s climate, alongside a veritable plethora of other existential issues – from renewed global, nuclear-powered conflicts through to Artificial Intelligence and global pandemics.
And there are key themes, such as national identity, conflict, familial feuds, and loyalty, which would not feel out of place in any contemporary conversation. So while there are millennia separating the events in the novel and today, the core themes and actions that take place in the book strike right at the heart of something timeless – calling to something within human nature that is as old as literature and shows little sign of changing.
In short, this is a book that gives a voice to a vanished people, and in doing so, shows that this voice may not be unlike our own.
A Winter War by Tim Leach is the first in a trilogy, published by Head of Zeus. Purchase a copy via Amazon here – A Winter War: Amazon.co.uk: Tim Leach: 9781800242869: Books