Author: Cecelia Ekbäck
Title: Wolf Winter
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]
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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.
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).
Extra! Here is a song that came on the radio while I was writing this review. It perfectly matches the tone of this novel.