‘The Palace of the Snow Queen’ by Barbara Sjoholm *****

‘A Frequent traveler to Northern Europe, Barbara Sjoholm set off one winter to explore a region that had long intrigued her. Sjoholm first travels to Kiruna, Sweden, to see the Icehotel under construction and to meet the ice artists who make its rooms into environmental art. Traveling to the North Cape, she encounters increasing darkness and cold, but also radiant light over the mountains and snow fields. She crosses the Finnmark Plateau by dogsled, attends a Sami film festival (with an outdoor ice screen), and visits Santa’s Post Office in Finland. Over the course of three winters, Sjoholm unearths the region’s rich history, including the culture of the Sami. As Sjoholm becomes more familiar with Kiruna, she writes of the changes occurring in northern Scandinavia and contemplates the tensions between tourism, the expansion of mining and development of the Ice Hotel, and age-old patterns of land use, the Sami’s struggle to maintain their reindeer grazing lands and migration routes.’

I was incredibly excited to read Barbara Sjoholm’s The Palace of the Snow Queen, in which she spends several winters in the Arctic Circle.  Sjoholm’s entire account is vivid and fascinating; she brings to light so many elements of life in the far north, always with the utmost sensitivity for those who live there.  9781593761592

Throughout, Sjoholm writes about the Sami, tourism, custom and tradition, the Icehotel in Sweden, and ways to travel around, amongst a plethora of other things.  She strongly demonstrates just how quickly times change, and how some centuries-old traditions are being dropped in favour of the necessity of tourism.

Everything has been so well researched here, not only with regard to her own experiences, but with insight by others who have explored the region in years past.  Her narrative voice is incredibly engaging, and I learnt so much from her account.  It was the perfect tome to read over the Christmas period, and has extended my wanderlust even further.  The Palace of the Snow Queen is undoubtedly one of the best travelogues which I have ever read, and is a sheer transportative joy to settle down with during long winters’ nights.

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‘Wolf Winter’ by Cecilia Ekback ***

Cecilia Ekback’s Wolf Winter begins in Swedish Lapland in June 1717, with siblings Frederika and Dorothea.  The girls, fourteen and six years old respectively, make a significant discovery near their new home on isolated Blackasen Mountain – the mutilated body of a man.

The sometimes simplistic prose within Wolf Winter allows the darker passages to be incredibly vivid.  On finding the body, for example, Ekback writes: ‘It was a dead man there in the glade.  He stared at Frederika with cloudy eyes.  He lay bent.  Broken.  His stomach was torn open, his insides on the grass violently red, stringy’.  At first, the attack is put down to the work of a bear, but things take a darker tone as the novel goes on.

The girls’ family have their own troubles.  They have moved from ‘the waters of Finland’ to ‘the forests of Sweden’ in order to escape their father’s night terrors, from which he wakes up ‘soaking wet, smelling salty of seaweed and rank like fish’.  Ekback demonstrates the way in which other members of the family have had to make sacrifices in order to swap their old and rather beloved way of life for their new one: ‘But inside Maija [their mother], the wind still screamed.  All these things they had left behind, and yet her husband had chosen to bring his fear’.

Ekback sets the scene well in just a few words, and her imagery – particularly with regard to the natural world around her protagonists – is beautiful: ‘The morning was bright; white daylight sliced the spruce tops and stirred up too much colour’.  We also learn about Frederika’s view of the place rather early on: ‘… here, nothing could be fine.  The forest was too dark.  There was spidery mould among the twigs and on the ground beneath the lowest branches there were still patches of snow, hollow blue’.  As one might expect, given the period and the Scandinavian setting, mythology is heavily entrenched within the world of the girls; they are led to believe that trolls live in the crevices which surround their home, for example.

Wolf Winter is an easy story to get into.  Whilst the premise is haunting and intriguing, there are several elements which unfortunately let the whole down.  The dialogue feels far too modern for the mostpart to work, and very few of the phrases which are uttered serve to anchor the storyline as they really should do.  Some of the characters are a little too shadowy, and nothing feels quite realistic after a while.  The first section of the novel is interesting, but those sections which follow do not quite live up to its opening, and it feels rather uneven in consequence.

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