Review: Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck

Author: Cecelia Ekbäck
Title: Wolf Winter
Format/Source: eBook/Netgalley
Published: January 2015
Publisher: Weinstein Books
Length: 376 pages
Genre: Historical suspense
Why I Read: Recommended for fans of The Snow Child, description brought to mind Burial Rites
Read If You’re: Looking for an ominous winter tale 
Rating:  ★★★½ [ratings guide]
GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon
I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

I came across the term ‘Nordic noir’ a few days ago. When I googled it, I discovered it’s an actual term for Scandinavian mysteries, but I think it’s just the phrase I’ve been looking for to describe books such as Burial Rites, The Snow Child and now, Wolf Winter. Books where winter features as a key character, an atmospheric and sombre (but not necessarily dreary) mood drives the prose, a historical setting strips away modern distractions, and characters’ daily struggles for survival have just a kiss of the supernatural about them (if only due dark and romanticized nature of their situations). The setting doesn’t necessarily have to be Nordic, but it works especially well. All of these components I love are present in Wolf Winter, Celia Ekbäck’s debut novel.

The prose holds many stark moments. I won’t give them away! But there were places I had to pause and shut my eyes for a moment, because the impression in my mind was so vivid. I’m wowed by writing that can truly startle you, when all you’re doing is reading words on a page. It’s such a different experience from watching a movie, and yet a talented writer can draw out just the same emotions. Those specific moments aside, the prose is what you might expect from such a tale – vivid and succinct, atmospheric and bold.

This novel features many great characters. I like the ghosts, and their questionable physicality. I enjoy reading about settlers. Even without winter majesty or supernatural happenings, I would still be happy to read about settlers. I didn’t think I would find myself reading another book featuring a priest so soon! In The Enchanted you have the disgraced priest, in Burial Rites you have the young priest, in Wolf Winter you have both in one. (Maybe I should do a list – “great books featuring non-traditional priests”?). Though I’m not sure how I feel about the priest, I adored Maija! She’s a great mother, sincere in her love for her children,  She loves her children and this shows through (twice I noted passages I thought particularly sweet) but she doesn’t coddle them too closely or have an unbelievable relationship with either daughter. I felt for her as she came to realize she didn’t know Frederika like she used. The mother-daughter relationship becomes prominent as the story progresses. Maija is a role-model for me beyond her role as a mother. I found myself admiring some of the decisions she made and the opinions she voiced, and how she remained down to earth, even if she wasn’t always correct. I sympathized when she worried about her family. She’s not too perfect or too flawed. Maija is the most well-drawn character of the bunch, I think (of course, she is the main character). Some of the settlers could have been expounded on more, considering they’re all meant to be suspects in the murder. I would have liked to have gotten to know some of them better.

Two small comments I’m not sure where to stick: It’s not so often now that I come across words I’m totally unfamiliar with…so it was with excitement I highlighted the word haulm near the beginning of the story. I like the slow creeping fear that pervades through the settlement as the story progresses, heigtened, of course, by the experience of a brutal winter.

Please note: The next paragraph contains minor spoilers regarding the conclusion of the story. Skip to avoid.

I haven’t commented much on the plot yet. There’s a lot going on in the story, but I didn’t really notice it until afterward. Everything fits snug together – women’s place in society, the role/relationship between the church and state, new vs. old religious beliefs, settling in a harsh landscape, handling sexual abuse, etc. For me, though, the story-line was the weakest aspect of the novel, mainly because of the conclusion. First, I wanted to know more about Maija and her family’s background. There’s something like an info dump towards the end of the novel, but that wasn’t really what I was hoping for. The conclusion wasn’t really for me. I thought it too political. I initially liked the inclusion of nameless politics, but I wasn’t expecting it to play such a big role in the storyline. Politics aren’t to my taste. The mysteries are solved quickly and wrapped up almost too neatly. There was a lack of suspense as everything came together. Lastly, I’m not sure about Paavo’s role in the story. I didn’t know whether to put my comments about him in the character paragraph or in the plot paragraph. I decided here because he felt mostly like a plot device, though when he was present in the novel I thought he had a lot of potential. I was sad to see him depart the story early on.  (I feel like there should be a companion novel about what he was doing and why he wasn’t writing and what happens when/if he comes back). I suppose he had to leave so Maija could come into her own? But then why have him there in the first place? I enjoyed Wolf Winter, but the conclusion didn’t meet my expectations.

Wolf Winter is an enjoyable read and a strong debut. I’d recommend it to people who like this kind of story. But, it’s not a ground-breaking book I’ll be pushing to everyone. And that’s okay! One doesn’t always need to be reading amazing books. Sometimes you just need a good read and not something that’s going to transform your world and turn you obsessive…

The Bottom Line: If you like moody winter stories or historical settler tales (or just need a book to snuggle up with during a blizzard), by all means give this a read. It’s a good debut and I already look forward to Ekbäck  ‘loose sequel’ (see the Shelf Awareness link below).

Further Reading: 

    Extra! Here is a song that came on the radio while I was writing this review. It perfectly matches the tone of this novel.

    Reread Review: Stardust by Neil Gaiman

    Author: Neil Gaiman
    Title: Stardust
    Format/Source: Paperback/my copy
    Published: 1999
    Publisher: HarperCollins
    Length: 248 pages
    Genre: Fantasy
    Why I Read: Part of the Reread Challenge
    Read If You’re: Enjoy a poetic fantasy in the fairy tale vein
    Quote: “The guard is relaxed once every nine years, on May Day, when a fair comes to the meadow.” (5)
    Rating:  ★★★★★ [ratings guide]
    Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

    WHEN I First Read – December 2008, over a year after the movie got me interested in the book. I had gone through a short phase of watching a Much Music talk show. One day I caught Claire Danes promoting Stardust. I thought the movie was sweet, and I wanted to read the book.

    WHAT I Remember – I remember being absolutely delighted to finally find the kind of fantasy story I always wanted to read. I even wrote an assignment for my grade 10 English class a few months later about how perfect I thought the book was. (I was also compared a passage from the book with a passage from The Lord of the Rings for a syntax course in university.) I still agree with all the sentiments I expressed five years ago! Here’s the essay (you can tell from the introduction that I was fed up with traditional fantasy, especially after giving Games of Thrones a go :P):

    I always held a vision of the perfect fantasy in my mind, determined to find the story that would meet my standards of a good book. It would be set in a time vaguely reminiscent of the Middle Ages. It wouldn’t have pages full of dry descriptions. It wouldn’t have a plot supported entirely by boring politics. It wouldn’t sprawl 2 000 pages across three volumes. Perhaps most importantly, at least one likeable character would be found within the novel’s pages. Hopefully, this ideal book would be an example of the direction I wanted my writing to go in, something I could read and say to myself after ‘I want to be able to write like that!’. I had never before found a novel that made me want to say that. After five years of reading the fantasy genre, however, I finally discovered the book that met all of my standards and fulfilled my hope of finding something to guide my own writing.

    I stumbled upon the novel by accident, as I have with all my most treasured books. This particular story was one I decided to read after seeing the movie version. The film was released the summer of 2007 and I rented it as soon as it was available on DVD. I thought it was a sweet movie; it had all the elements of a satisfying story. I promised myself to (at some point) read the book upon which the movie was based. For Christmas 2008 (over a year after I had first seen the film) I received Stardust, by Neil Gaiman. 

    Stardust is the novel I wish I could write. Every aspect of the book fits the story perfectly, from the characters to the length to the prose. The novel is not geared toward juveniles, despite being just 248 pages long. Although the target audience is older, Stardust is not full of repetitive unimaginative adult themes. The plot is free from unreasonable twists and expected turns. The tale is simple (boy likes girl, boy promises girl whatever she desires, boy falls in love with different girl), but full of unique elements and ideas only Gaiman could think of, such as fallen stars being human-like or sky pirates who catch and sell lightning. The author knows his craft well and this shows in prose that never drags. Every word has been placed with care and enhances the story in some way. For example, one of the Lillim is described: ‘the youngest one, who had been old when the wood they lived in was still beneath the sea.’ This sentence fragment says much about the woman without dragging on too long or using words unheard of in everyday language. Stardust is written without extravagant language, yet it comes off elegantly. Gaiman never uses excess words while delivering his tale to the reader.  He also knows how to utilize every character to their potential. Even the minor characters who only hold the reader’s attention for a page or two have something memorable about them, enough to make them a contender for ‘favourite character’.  Mr. Brown is one such character. He guards the gap in the wall between our world and Faerie. His determination to perform his job properly adds both humour and tension to the novel, even though his role only lasts a few pages. In Stardust, nothing is wasted. Every piece of the novel is used to its full potential. This book will live on my shelf among The Complete Hans Christian Anderson Fairy Tales and The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, a staple I will enjoy for many years to come.

    I have not come across any other books similar to Stardust. Nothing is written in quite the same, careful style. My favourite genre, to read and to write, is medieval fantasy but Stardust is the only novel I actually enjoy in that category. It is the one guideline I have for my own writing, my single source of inspiration. It’s the standard of writing I can dream to achieve one day. Before Stardust, I struggled with writing my own stories, not knowing what I was striving for, what I wanted them to be like. Stardust proved that what I love to read can exist. It proved that maybe, someday, I will also be able to write a novel like that; a simple tale beautifully written, a story that people will fall in love with over and over again.

    WHY I Wanted to Re-Read I wanted to read a familiar and elegant story. More generally I wanted some pretty fiction because I wasn’t sure what to read next.

    HOW I Felt After Re-Reading Very pleased to find I still enjoy the story, and a bit surprised I don’t read it more often! It’s a great book to cozy up with for an afternoon, as did during this re-read.

    WOULD I Re-Read Again Yes, of course. To this day I have still not found another story like it, so reread it I will continue to do.

    A year after I first read Stardust, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Neil at a local bookstore signing. I thanked him for Stardust, for giving me something to keep writing towards, and he signed my book with a shooting star in ldusty rose ink. Now that book is my most prized possession! (Yes, that’s my real name, shhh, don’ tell anyone!)

    Quick Review: Riveting Reads

    Every now and then I pick up a novel not expecting anything in particular, but once I start reading I find myself sucked into the story and blazing through the book whenever I have a moment. These books either make me cry out “I can’t believe it! What happens next?” with nearly every page, or they have me captured silently wondering how the characters will deal with their situation. (…Well, now that I’ve typed that out, I realize that those are basically the same two reactions, hah.) I don’t usually review these sorts of books (isn’t that what I said about the last books I reviewed?! I guess I’m trying to do a better job of keeping tack of all my bookish thoughts). The reason I don’t usually review the books that provoke the reaction described above is because they’re very in-the-moment for me. I devour them and then forget them. For a few days, their stories are all that matter, but once I’m finished I can barely recall the main character’s name (example – I wrote “Jake and ?????” before looking up Jude and Noah’s names). These two books demonstrate those reactions.

    • I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
      • Rating: ★★★★½ [ratings guide]
      • Nelson’s novel provoked the “I can’t believe it! What happens next?” reaction
      • I’ve never read a book where I gasped so much or had to pause so often to let what I read sink in. And yet it’s not overdone, it’s not so surprising that it becomes unsurprising. Each shock has its place in the story. Just as you think you know how the story is going, Nelson throws one in. These surprises are largely realistic as well. They aren’t so absurd or unpredictable that you’d scoff at them. 
        • This is the sort of story I expected but didn’t find in We Were Liars
      • I’m also not sure I’ve ever read a more simultaneously heart-wrenching and uplifting story.
      • I like that at its heart it’s a story about family. Jude and Noah star, but ##, mother and father are also significant and have their own strengths and flaws.
    • The Secret History by Donna Tartt
      • Rating: ★★★½ [ratings guide]
      • Tartt’s novel provoked the furiously silent obsessive reaction.
      • I’m not giving this one four stars because I don’t think it has reread value.
      • This book is a beast. I agree with anyone who says it should have been 150 pages shorter. However, the length didn’t bother me much. I just kept plodding forward.
      • Thinking back, the characters are insufferable and the plot is a bit absurd. And I’m not sure if the prose was that great? Yet obviously there was something about this story that sucked me in…what’s the phrase about not being able to look away from a train wreck? Er, not that this book was as bad as a train wreck. I just can’t figure out now why I liked reading it so much. I do recommend giving it a go if the description piques your interest.

    Have you read either of these books? Have any books completely dragged you into their world for a few days?

    Thoughts on The Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy by Rae Carson

    Author: Rae Carson
    Series: The Girl of Fire and Thorns
    Format/Source: eBook/library 
    Published: 2011 – 2013
    Publisher: Greenwillow Books
    Length: 1,266 pages
    Genre: Young adult fantasy
    Why I Read: Won in a giveaway, in the mood
    Read If You’re: Not necessarily a fan of YA fantasy but willing to try something with a little different (of course, YA fantasy fans should definitely try this)

    Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
    Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

    Please note: These thoughts touch upon aspects of all three books. Spoilers abound!

    I didn’t read these books with the intention to review. I read them for some light-hearted escapism to ease my mind during my first Christmas away from home.  Reasons I didn’t want to post:

    • So much has been written online about these books, with opinions greatly divided, and I didn’t feel like contending with that
    • These books aren’t the sort I usually read
    • There’s too many little things to discuss, things with complex implications

    But of course, those are also reasons why I should note my thoughts. This is my book blog; I’ll throw in my two cents even if my thoughts on this type of story are better suited to back and forth discussion rather than typing everything out. So that being said, these thoughts could benefit from mutual discussion. If you’ve read these books, please leave a comment (especially if you disagree with anything I say here)!

    Elisa – Elisa is a great character to star in a YA fantasy. Her personality is balanced; she’s not too anything. She’s a believable young woman. She’s not extraordinarily beautiful or blindingly white or perfectly slim. She knows about war from her studying, but she’s not a warrior or even athletic as so many contemporary heroines are. She does learn to fight, a bit, and improve somewhat in her physicality, but she’s still holding back her friends because she can’t run like they do. Her weight journey is perhaps a more complex issue than I initially thought. To me the weight she loses comes as a natural part of the story and it’s not connected to her sense of self-worth or ability. As she finds purpose and confidence, she no longer needs to eat as much to comfort herself. It just happens at the same time as other things (and, she still isn’t thin). But maybe it’s more controversial, maybe my way of seeing it is my way of excusing it. As someone who hasn’t struggled with weight, I don’t think I’m able to comment accurately on how Elisa’s struggle is portrayed. I wonder how an emotional over eater (as Elisa is in the beginning) would feel about the story? Finally, Elisa really is a ‘noble’ character – this isn’t a story where the regents are totally evil or the peasants are totally wonderful. She strives to love her husband and recognizes why she’s being committed to a political marriage. She’s not so modern in that she thinks “I don’t want to marry him, I want to hunt bears” or something, and yet her husband isn’t a perfect romantic king who will sweep her off her feet. I like how she takes responsibility for Rosario. The political nature of their relationship and how it affects them felt very believable to me. She fights to do the best for her kingdom and for herself. She becomes an independent (well…I mean, she doesn’t have her father or her husband or someone telling her what to do) queen. Yet through all this she is still a realistic young woman. I could imagine chatting with her as a friend.

    Social/political components – I enjoyed the palace politics and intrigues, which weren’t dull or tiring. I like how Elisa has to deal with different types of fallout from her actions and consider how doing something to satisfy one part of her kingdom will upset another.

    Religious components – Despite my interest in religious studies, I never see connections in fantasy religions to real world religions. I like to consider them on their own. I wouldn’t have thought of Catholicism if it weren’t for the reviews that mentioned the ‘glaring’ similarities (maybe that’s also because I’m not so familiar with Catholicism?). At first I wanted more back story to the religion, but I came to realize that wasn’t really what the story was about. It wasn’t about getting answers to the truth of the religion – the religion is just there, as it is in reality. I like that Elisa is devout but it doesn’t hamper her actions. I like how her relationship with her religion evolves as the story goes on, but I also like how it doesn’t end with the religion being totally discredited. I think it’s interesting to note that Carson grew up in a very religious household but is no longer religious (see interview linked below) – but she’s not using her stories to promote her beliefs, because then Elisa would have disavowed her own religion. I think this is a great portrayal of religion. There aren’t any clear answers given, it’s just a part of the story. It’s not totally wonderful or totally awful. It just is, for the most part. Of course, Godstones are a major part of the story. We learn a bit about them, but not all is revealed. Sometimes that frustrates me (I want to know EVERYTHING) but I liked how it’s dealt with in this story.

    Inviernos – I have some qualms about the portrayal of the Inviernos. In the first book, I wondered if the relationship between Joyans and Inviernos would get better, if we would get to see the Invierno’s side of the story. Well, we sort of do. Though Elisa wants them to be allies, she still has a bad attitude towards them. The Inviernos are still portrayed as ‘lesser’ than the Joyans despite the conclusion that integrates their two societies. Once I learnt their backstory, I did feel more sympathetic towards them, but the attitude of Elisa and her friends doesn’t change much. They seem to view an alliance with the Inviernos as just a means to end the war and their own suffering. There’s a comment about how the Inviernos should ‘get over’ something that happened a thousand years ago – the Joyans arrival and the destruction of the Inviernos’ way of life. Ouch, yeah, like Indigenous people should just ‘get over’ colonization. I guess this is a very realistic portrayal, mirroring the relationship between colonizers and Indigenous people today. However, because the story is told from Elisa’s point of view, though, the reader doesn’t hear any criticism of her attitude. You get the sense that Elisa’s attitude is supposed to be correct and acceptable. Nope, not cool. This is the main aspect of the story I have trouble with.

    Romance  – I loved the romantic aspects of these novels, which is not something I thought I would ever say about a YA fantasy! I thought they were portrayed in a very reasonable and believable manner (I guess that’s the keyword for this story – ‘believable’). I like that Carson includes the idea of different types of love (as Elisa learns through her relationships with Humbert, Alejandro and Hector). I liked the inclusion of taking a form of birth control ‘just in case’ – it’s not condescending, not awkward, and I think it’s a good message to have in books like this (wow, now I’m talking about ‘good messages for teens’, that’s also not something I thought I would ever discuss…). There isn’t too much romance or any mushy scenes. The romance isn’t the main plot.

    Other criticisms – Regarding many of the criticisms I read in other popular Goodreads reviews (of the first book at least): I found many of the critiques over blown, magnifying small aspects of the story out of proportion and ignoring how they factor into the story’s context. Maybe those reviewers jumped on and magnified those aspects because that’s what you usually find in YA fantasy? Or maybe I just missed the boat and the criticisms are valid (see my earlier comments on Elisa’s weight). Oh well. I’m not concerned by her maturity, but I can see how that would bother some readers. Some commented that this trilogy is a Divergent wannabe?? I never read Divergent but it must be very different than what I thought it was about if it’s similar to these books. Also, I think it makes a difference to look at the trilogy as a whole instead of just the first book, as the story improves and things that happen in the first book are better explained as it goes on. Elisa pursues many of her good deeds because she knows she destined to do something great because of the Godstone, but in the end she finds her great act was unrelated to everything she did – she was strong on her own, not because God was guiding her.

    Conclusion – Most of my dislikes are outweighed by the fact that I just wanted a decent teen fantasy, and it turned it out better than I expected. This is a great example of an ‘enjoyable’ read.

    The Bottom Line: Though not without problematic aspects (particularly the portrayal of the Inviernos), I enjoyed the trilogy and thought it was a fun read, especially because of its grounded and believable characters. If you’re wary of YA fantasy, I recommend starting here.

    Further Reading: 

    *I actually started a fantasy story once about a girl and her family who are believed to be divine rulers but she knows they’re just ordinary people who use magic and prevent the common folk from discovering it. I don’t mean I funnel my personal beliefs about religion into the story, I just thought it was an interesting way to explore how people engage with religion and how it factors into daily lives. I wrote another story that was pretty much the opposite – some fairies think they’re regular fairies, but learn they’re actually gods and when they try to take up their roles their people all have different reactions to that.

      The Re-read Challenge

      The 2015 Re-Read Challenge

      Heya, another challenge! This is the last of the year long challenges I’m signing up for this year (probably…). In 2012 and 2013 I kept a Goodreads shelf of books I re-read – 18 in 2012, 8 in 2013 but then so few in 2014 that I didn’t make a shelf. I want to change that this year. I’m going to aim for one book a month, but I hope I surpass that goal. Here’s a photo of the books I brought with me to Japan – favourites that certainly deserve a reread. The full list of potential rereads is below.

      •  The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
      • The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
      • The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien by J.R.R. Tolkien
      • White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi
      • The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
      • Stardust by Neil Gaiman
      • The Sight by David Clement-Davies
      • Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
      • Zen Keys by Thich Nhat Hanh
      • In The Night Garden by Catherynne M. Valente
      • Stripped: Depeche Mode by Jonathan Miller
      • Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
      • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
      • Time Was Soft There by Jeremy Mercer
      • Wild by Jay Griffiths
      • The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke 
      • Inkheart trilogy by Cornelia Funke
      • Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer

      Three books on this list I’ve read every year since my first reading – LotR,  The Hobbit and White is for Witching (except…I didn’t read it last year ;_;). I’ve already tackled Stardust. I blazed through it in an afternoon a few days into the new year.  The best books I know will always be the books I’ve read before… so I want to reread those best books and remind myself why I love them!

      What books do you want to re-read this year? Are there any books you read annually?