These 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.