Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck

22812873These past few nights, I have traveled to Lapland, Lapland in 1717, to be exact. The early 18th century was a time of instability in Sweden. The country had been at war for a long time, and crops had failed for several years in a row. It was a time when old beliefs and superstitions were hard to erase, hampering the king and the church’s attempt to convert everyone to Christianity. It is the perfect setting for this novel, which is “part historical thriller and part Swedish Gothic.”

It begins when Paavo and Maija decide that Sweden offers their family more security than Finland. They settle near Blackåsen Mountain in the north of Sweden, not knowing that several people have inexplicably died or disappeared in the area in recent years. They only start to suspect that things are not what they appear to be when their daughters find a corpse. This is the start of a slow, atmospheric tale of murder and mystery.

The corpse turns out to be Eriksson, one of their neighbors, and his death is dismissed as a wolf attack. But Maija thinks there is something unusual about the wounds she finds on the body; they seem to have been inflicted by a person rather than a wolf. Despite the neighbors’ strange disinterest in the death, she begins to investigate. Unbeknownst to her, her oldest daughter, Frederika, also becomes embroiled in trying to uncover what happened to Eriksson, although it is against her will. She is susceptible to the dark presence of Blackåsen, the mountain that seems to bring nothing but sorrow to those who live in its shadow.

Then there is the priest who is new still to the congregation and who has been charged by his Bishop to find out what happened to the dead or vanished parishioners. While the priest has no reason to suspect the Bishop, he can’t help but wonder at some of his superior’s actions. Yet the priest has enough of his own secrets to hide to not openly question the Bishop.

At the same time as Maija, Frederika, and the priest try to untangle the net of superstition, fear, religion, and politics that has been woven, it becomes questionable whether they will survive the Wolf Winter—a winter so brutal that no one will ever forget it.

This is Cecilia Ekbäck’s debut novel, and it is quite an accomplishment. It is dark and cold, with many, many secrets. More than once, I pulled the blanket up to my nose to stay warm. I half-expected it to start snowing while I was reading, so caught up was I in the tale.

My one quibble would be that Maija’s actions were sometimes a bit confounding. She is a midwife at a time when women in her profession were often and quickly accused of witchcraft. As a newcomer, I thought she would be more cautious to investigate and accuse her neighbors. There was an explanation at the end, but I did not find it completely satisfying. Nevertheless, if you like The Snow Child or Burial Rites, then I am sure you will like this one as well.

*I received a free copy of this book from the publisher through Netgalley.

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11 comments

  1. I’m glad you liked this one. I had to go back and read my review. I think overall I really liked the atmosphere and imagery in the novel — I just wished for maybe a bit more action. But the author is a pretty nice and interesting person — she lives now in Calgary where I live and I met her at a couple of events. Her 2nd one should be out in the near future.

  2. I had a few quibbles about Wolf Winter, it felt a little too contemporary to me and the actions of the protagonist didn’t seem to fit with her circumstances. I was also baffled by the absence of the husband. It was an enjoyable read and a credible debut.

    Interestingly, I read White Hunger, as mentioned by Jacqui not long after this and that was a really atmospheric, almost claustrophobic read, very powerful and haunting and requires a second read almost.

    • Yeah, I read your review of Wolf Winter when I was done reading the book. I agree with you that she didn’t always act like a midwife. I didn’t have a problem with the absent husband though. It seems like I liked the book much better than you did.

  3. The Scandinavian setting, successive crop failures, and harsh winter all remind me of Aki Ollikainen’s novella, White Hunger, a book I reviewed last month. (It’s set in the Finnish countryside in the winter of 1867.) That one isn’t a thriller, though – it’s pretty bleak stuff. Wolf Winter sounds more atmospheric, a book for a dark winter’s night (as long as you’re curled up next to a roaring fire). 🙂

  4. Kay reviewed this book a little while ago, and I was so sure someone had mentioned it to me before. Then I remembered that the author of Against A Darkening Sky (Lauren B. Davis) commented on my review of her book and told me that she ‘blurbed’ Wolf Winter and really liked it. It does sound very atmospheric.
    I still have to read The Snow Child!

  5. I started listening to this on audio a while back and abandoned it because it seemed like a book that would work better in print – for me, at least. I find audio works better for faster moving plots. Thanks for reminding me of it – from the bit I listened to I thought she really did build up an atmospheric picture of the harshness of life in that environment. Must get hold of a paper copy…

    • I’m not a big fan of audiobooks. I either get too engrossed and forget everything around me, or I lose interest and stop paying attention. This is a slow book with many details that become important later in the story. From what you say, I think you will like it much better in print.

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