This book came to my attention a few months ago, and I’ve been intrigued ever since. Mythologies from around the world have always been something I find interesting, so combining a regular favourite – Norse mythology and history – with something a bit less seen in the Inuit culture was always going to be a winner. At least in my eyes.
The Wolf in the Whale is set roughly around the year 1000AD, and follows Omat – a young Inuit shaman and hunter – as she struggles to find her place in a society with deep, cultural taboos about women, hunting and magic. Omat holds her father’s spirit deep inside her and has therefore been raised as a boy; this means she has been taught to hunt and been allowed to learn how to control the latent magic inside her. However, the arrival of another Inuit family in The Land of the Great Whale upsets this balance and leads her to question her raising as a boy, her right to hunt and to commune with the ancient spirits of the land. The path that this upheaval leads her on soon brings her face-to-face with a new people and their strange gods.
As a character, Omat and the other members of her family, are all instantly likeable. Some of my favourite moments in the book are in the first half, where we watch them in their daily struggle and learn about Inuit culture, hunting techniques and mythology. It really does speak to how much research Jordanna Max Brodsky did for this book as she isn’t Inuit herself. I especially liked Ataata (Omat’s grandfather) and his role in raising her as his apprentice shaman. Other characters who really standout in this book are Issuk, Freydis and Brandr, though all for different reasons, and not all of them good either. Creating characters that you hate and loathe requires just as much skill to write as loveable ones, and so I still wanted to give the ‘bad’ ones a shout out alongside the ‘good’ ones.
Another real strength of this book, in fact possibly its greatest strength, is the atmosphere that Max Brodksy has interwoven into the story. It is quite simply incredible and really captures the harsh conditions and unrelenting lifestyle that surrounds Omat and her family. Both the beauty and the dangers of life in the Arctic are abundantly clear as you read through the book, and I developed a huge amount of respect for the sheer stamina and effort shown by Omat and the other Inuit throughout the book. Honestly, I was knackered reading about some of her exploits and the amount of effort required to simply survive in the Arctic. This is emphasised by the slow-burn nature of the book, with it not really picking up pace until halfway through, or possibly more.
As I mentioned at the start of this review, one of the key reasons for wanting to read this book was the promise of a clash between the mythologies of the Norse and the Inuit. Boy, did this book deliver. I particularly enjoyed the way the two sets of gods and their magic was linked together to make a cohesive magical and belief system despite their very different natures. The inclusion of Christianity as a third wheel into this conflict, and how it affects the actions of the Norse and their gods, was a really interesting aspect of the book. Once again, it shows the depths of research that Max Brodksy went to when writing this book as, by this point in history, Greenland and the New World colonies were the last real bastions of the old pagan gods in the Viking world.
Magic in general in this book seems quite subtle and minimalist, especially in the beginning of the book. In fact, I would say that the first two-thirds of the book lean more heavily towards the historical fiction side than the fantasy side. This doesn’t mean it isn’t there, it just isn’t flinging magic everywhere willy-nilly. For the last third, however, this gets thrown out of the window and quite honestly, it caught me off guard a little bit. I’d gotten used to the magic’s subtlety and being more in the background. I’m not saying this was a bad thing, but it was a very definite and sudden change of pace.
One final thing: this book does contain a rape scene. This might be off putting or upsetting for some readers. It’s handled respectfully by the author, in my opinion, and is certainly not gratuitous or on a Game of Thrones level in terms of its graphicness, but it is in there.
Overall, this is a book I would thoroughly recommend to anyone who wants a wonderfully atmospheric novel with a strong, feisty female lead. In that way, I’d compare it to The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, so if you enjoyed that book then do get your hands on this one.
P.S. How amazing is that cover!