In a near-future America torn apart by wars and pandemics, the McBride family has fled the city in search of isolation and sanctuary in the wilds of Alaska. All the conveniences of modern life have been consumed by the conflict, and the McBrides eke out a subsistence existence by hunting, trapping, fishing and growing what few crops will tolerate the harsh climate. The family’s story of frontier survival is narrated by Lynn, a self-reliant and wilful 23-year-old who was just twelve when the world collapsed - forcing her to leave her old life behind to become a refugee with her uncle, mother and brother.
Mourning the loss of her father and the comforts of her childhood years, Lynn has still been able to reconcile herself to her surroundings and has acquired an impressive array of new skills, not least as a tracker and an archer. But the remote Alaskan woodlands is an unforgiving place, and with the family crammed together in small log dwellings, and with few other people for company, Lynn finds life claustrophobic and frustrating.
When she encounters a solitary traveller in the snow-covered hills she is both elated and concerned, while her family are immediately suspicious. But the arrival of this stranger in their midst will be the catalyst that turns their settled lives upside down, revealing long-hidden secrets and exposing the settlers to unimaginable dangers as their separation from the old world is put in jeopardy.
There’s no question that the storyline of Tyrell Johnson’s debut novel The Wolves of Winter contains some familiar beats, or that the near-apocalypse genre is an overcrowded one in current fantasy and sci-fi literature.
Yet Johnson’s absorbing tale deserves attention not least because of the vivid descriptions of the precarity of existence in the wintry, mountainous Alaskan setting; or for the frequent twists and turns of a thrilling and unpredictable plot. But above all, it is the warmth and the resilient mindset of narrator Lynn that draws the reader into this story. She is a compelling and sympathetic heroine, whose motivations and preoccupations it is easy to identify and to empathise with.
As the seclusion of the family is breached, Johnson rolls back the timeline of the story to reveal more about the outbreak of the first armed clashes, the international political schisms, the spread of a plague virus, and the response of the US authorities to the mounting, compound crises. This makes for some unsettling (and all too plausible) reading, but the real focus here is not on the epic geopolitics of the disaster that has engulfed the world, but on the repercussions that that calamity has had on one extended family (albeit a far from ordinary one) over a period of years.
The finale sets up the possibility of future instalments in what could be developed into a multi-part series. Yet The Wolves of Winter already succeeds as a taut standalone story, which explores, to satisfying effect, the wickedness and the selflessness that human beings are capable of displaying in conditions of extremes.
THE WOLVES OF WINTER / AUTHOR: TYRELL JOHNSON / PUBLISHER: HARPERCOLLINS / RELEASE DATE: JANUARY 11TH 2018