Wolf Winter is the debut novel from Swedish born, Calgary-based author Cecilia Ekbäck. Set in 1717 Sweden, the novel opens on Frederika and Dorthea who, along with their parents, have moved from Finland to Blackasen Mountain. While herding the family’s goats, Frederika stumbles upon the body of their neighbour, Eriksson. Though the man’s death is dismissed as an animal attack by most of the other settlers, the girls’ mother, Maija, and Olaus, a priest, aren’t convinced and set out to find the murderer. Subsequently, the community faces a particularly hard winter and Frederika starts questioning the things she sees around the mountainside and the people who live there.
Ekbäck’s descriptive passages successfully convey the cold and desolate world of Blackasen, a place as mysterious and unforgiving as the secrets its hides. However, by focusing so closely on setting the scene, the story suffers. Eriksson’s murder, supposedly central to the novel’s plot, is often pushed into the background to make way for environmental issues such as lack of food or proper medical care. When the murderer is finally revealed it seems more of an afterthought than a crucial part of the story.
While a number of characters – such as Frederika and Maija – are well developed, many of the others are either mentioned too briefly or aren’t given enough to do to be considered memorable. As a result, when their important connection to relevant events is revealed, readers may find themselves returning to earlier sections of the book to remind themselves who these people are.
Ultimately, Wolf Winter is too involved with creating atmosphere at the expense of its story, and too many underdeveloped characters cause the novel to lose focus.