6/10 Early promise let down by the last third
A group of friends tries to reconnect by going on a hike through the Swedish wilderness. But after becoming lost, they are stalked by an unknown creature.
I normally avoid spoilers, but the last paragraph of this section discusses spoilers for the novel. Skip the paragraph marked Spoilers if you don’t wish to be spoiled.
While we start with a bang, a mangled deer perched on display in a tree, the story switches gears to slow down and build back up. We have a group of “friends” half at each other’s throats as they become lost, and the story focuses on their relationships and personal hardships. Luke, our point-of-view character, is the odd-man-out amongst his mates and becomes the group’s scapegoat and pariah. Sprinkled in with the arguing are moments of horror and mystery. This is the whole first two-thirds of the book, for better or worse. It gets a bit repetitive as the book is in search of a plot but leans heavily on continued arguments and a weak trope of characters failing to communicate something that would help relieve the tension.
Spoilers. Then we get into the last third of the book, part 2. What had been relatively strong character-building and a sense of dread comes crashing down when Nevill introduces new characters and a plot. Some black metal-worshipping teen misfits are living out in the woods, hoping to summon a “Norse god” from the woods. But there are a lot of go-nowhere chapters to pad this section, a lack of direction, and a noticeable shortage of horror. These kids are just too much “misfit” to replace the dark woods and stalking monster. And while the ending at the house was well done, the final confrontation with the monster was lacking for me and unimaginative. And overall, the monster is never really built up cohesively. No concrete rules are established for what it can do or why it does what it does.
The writing is good, generally speaking. But the first part of the book (roughly two-thirds) does get bogged down in repetition. From one very short chapter to the next, the woods are dark, cold, and wet, and the characters are all exhausted. Again and again. I recently reviewed The Terror, and some readers found the repetitive description to be too much in that novel, but I found that enough was going on between those segments that it worked. Here, it’s nearly every chapter filled with the same few notes. Over and over.
The first third was strong. The second third began to drag. The last third was a disappointment. And while there’s a lot of talk of “the Norse gods” this or “the Vikings” that, the story, monster, and cult have nothing to do with Norse mythology. There is so much material Nevill could have played with, but he decided to just make up his own creature and backstory while still attributing it to the Vikings. Some of it works on its own, some of it didn’t for me. The book honestly made me appreciate the movie adaptation more than I already did. They did an excellent job improving things where needed.