By: Cecilia Ekack
Format/Source: eARC courtesy of the publishers via NetGalley
Swedish Lapland, 1717. Maija, her husband Paavo and her daughters Frederika and Dorotea arrive from their native Finland, hoping to forget the traumas of their past and put down new roots in this harsh but beautiful land. Above them looms Blackåsen, a mountain whose foreboding presence looms over the valley and whose dark history seems to haunt the lives of those who live in its shadow.
While herding the family’s goats on the mountain, Frederika happens upon the mutilated body of one of their neighbors, Eriksson. The death is dismissed as a wolf attack, but Maija feels certain that the wounds could only have been inflicted by another man. Compelled to investigate despite her neighbors’ strange disinterest in the death and the fate of Eriksson’s widow, Maija is drawn into the dark history of tragedies and betrayals that have taken place on Blackåsen. Young Frederika finds herself pulled towards the mountain as well, feeling something none of the adults around her seem to notice.
As the seasons change, and the wolf winter, the harshest winter in memory, descends upon the settlers, Paavo travels to find work, and Maija finds herself struggling for her family’s survival in this land of winter-long darkness. As the snow gathers, the settlers’ secrets are increasingly laid bare. Scarce resources and the never-ending darkness force them to come together, but Maija, not knowing who to trust and who may betray her, is determined to find the answers for herself. Soon, Maija discovers the true cost of survival under the mountain, and what it will take to make it to spring.
I’ve been wanting to read this book since late last year when I saw a few fellow book bloggers post reviews on this novel. The premise sounded interesting and some have recommended it if you liked Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites (review), which I did. Many thanks to the publishers for approving me an eARC of the book to read in anticipation for the paperback release of this novel. The paperback of this novel will be available on 2 November 2015.
The atmosphere of the novel definitely reminds me of Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites: that sense of isolation and stillness, the haunting mysteriousness of the cold landscape. The winter that the community endures feels like a true rendition of the ominous “Winter is coming” that is frequently remarked on George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire with the cold and the snow and that sense of being cut off from the rest of civilisation. Maija and her daughters endured much over the course of that winter, on top of the mystery concerning the mysterious and eerie death of Eriksson. It’s the perfect setting for a mystery and a character drama.
The story itself had a bit of a slow start despite of its powerful opening of finding Eriksson’s lifeless body as the relationships of the characters and their respective situations were established. It was interesting in order to understand where these characters are coming from–especially as the story progresses–but I felt it meandered a little too long before turning back to the main story. It’s a tale of twists and turns, with political maneuverings and hints of the supernatural playing a role in Maija and Frederika’s respective investigations into Eriksson’s mysterious death and its effect on the community. Interwoven throughout is the changes happening within Maija’s family as Paavo goes off to work at the coast for the winter and Frederika is transitioning to adolescence and Maija finds herself unable to keep up with the changes.
These are all excellent story threads and kept me turning the page–the reveal about the priest, Olaus, was unexpected–and provided complexity to the mystery of Eriksson’s death. However, I felt the novel ended rather abruptly. There was the reveal behind Eriksson’s death and the reason behind it, as well as hints on the general directions of where the characters go after the last page, but I felt it could’ve used a few more scenes at the end to wrap things up. I felt especially dissatisfied with the resolution to Maija and Frederika’s mother-daughter relationship; does it improve afterwards or does it remain at stalemate forever? I also wished there was some resolution to Olaus’ interactions with Maija, it also felt rather abrupt how he was whisked away; yes, it happens in real life, but as a reading experience it felt like something was missing there too.
Overall though I enjoyed reading Wolf Winter. The desolation of the story and the landscape really came to life and it had its lyrical moments to compliment the sparceness of the atmosphere. The climax and wrap-up of the story left me wanting, but for the most part kept me glued to the story once the narrative took off. I would recommend this book for readers who enjoy mystery in their historical fiction and who enjoy books set in the Scandinavian countries.