Book Review: The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Post-Apocalyptic, Thriller
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Crown Publishing (July 5, 2016)
Length: 352 pages
I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I started The Wolf Road, but once it started going I couldn’t stop! And to be honest, I’m surprised more attention hasn’t been given to the book’s “Western” vibe, as that really deserves to be front and center. Out of the novel’s many strengths, its harsh and gritty frontier-like atmosphere was what really stood out—a definite plus for me, considering there’s certainly no shortage of post-apocalyptic settings in the speculative fiction arena.
The Wolf Road features a world ravaged by war. As a little girl, protagonist Elka learned from her Nana about the “Big Damn Stupid”—the catastrophic event that destroyed everything and set human civilization back to zero. Technology and modern comforts are gone now, along with any kind of social infrastructure or protection. It’s everyone for themselves in the northern wilderness where Elka lives, and what’s left of the law here is swift and merciless in delivering justice to criminals and delinquents.
One day when Elka was seven years old though, she found herself lost and alone in the woods. Against all odds, she was rescued and taken in by a man known only as “Trapper”. He sheltered Elka, when he could have turned away and left her to die. For the next ten years he took care of her, and even taught her how to hunt and to trap and to survive off the land. And in time, Elka came to see Trapper as her father.
However, all that safety and happiness about to be ripped away. On a fateful trip into town, Elka discovers that the man who had raised her for the last decade is not who she always thought he was. Trapper turns out to be a serial murderer wanted by the law, and unfortunately for Elka, her close association with him makes her an accomplice. The law is now after her in the form of a ruthless magistrate named Lyon, a hard woman who will stop at nothing to apprehend her prey. And now that Elka is aware of his true identity, the man she used to call her father is coming after her as well, determined not to leave loose ends.
I don’t know what I expected when I first picked up The Wolf Road, but it really hooked me in from the start. First of all, this is a unique novel that encompasses a number of genre elements, making it a bit hard to categorize. While it doesn’t have the breakneck pace of a thriller, the suspense is so thick it’s almost palpable. The post-apocalyptic setting is also unusual in that it downplays the typical themes of technological collapse and life afterwards in the crumbling cities. Instead, we’re deep in the wilderness, focusing on the remnants of a rural population that has reverted to way of life last seen in the mid-1800s, complete with their own Gold Rush! Lone travelers have to guard themselves against wolves and bears, as well as the predators of a more human sort like scammers, murders, and sex traffickers. Throw in poison lakes, the sudden and devastating weather changes, and all the other lasting effects of the Big Damned Stupid, and you have yourself a fascinating mix.
Elka herself is an intriguing character, a product of her unconventional upbringing. She’s tough and independent, but having spent her whole life in the woods, Elka is also understandably a little naïve and all too trusting when she heads out into the world by herself. While her guilelessness does get her into all sorts of trouble, on the bright side it also leads her to an unlikely friendship. Elka meets Penelope, the daughter of a well-to-do doctor, and though the two young women cannot be any more different, they quickly become family to each other. Gradually, their stories are revealed to us, and that’s when the realization really hits you just how dramatically things have changed in this world. Survival in this post-apocalypse can take many forms, and each individual adapts by playing to their strengths. Together, Elka and Penelope make a great team by combining their skills.
Also, no matter who you are or where you come from, everyone in this world has their secrets. In order to understand Elka, we also have to take in account the tricky relationship she has with Trapper, a man she can’t help but still think of as her father, even though she knows he is a killer. The Wolf Road portrays the different relationships very well, but given Elka’s history, there’s also an element of the unreliable narrator to contend with, and I think that’s where the story stumbled for me a little. I can’t go into any more detail due to risk of spoilers, but I can say that fortunately, this issue only cropped up for me near the end of the book, and the twist didn’t affect my overall experience too much.
Bottom line, The Wolf Road is an outstanding novel, incredibly well-written and carried out with impressive finesse. I loved the atmosphere of this world, and the people in it feel fully fleshed out, brought to life with strikingly vivid imagery and realistic characterization. This was one great read.