Book: “The Wolf in the Whale” by Jordanna Max Brodsky
Publishing Info: Redhook, January 2019
Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher!
Book Description: Born with the soul of a hunter and the language of the gods, Omat is destined to become a shaman like her grandfather. To protect her people, she invokes the spirits of the sky, the sea, and the air.
But the gods have stopped listening, the seals won’t come, and Omat’s family is starving.
Desperate to save them, Omat journeys through the icy wastes, fighting for survival with every step. When she meets a Viking warrior and his strange new gods, together they set in motion a conflict that could shatter her world…or save it.
The Wolf in the Whale is a powerful tale of magic, discovery and adventure, featuring an unforgettable narrator ready to confront the gods themselves.
Review: I was very excited when I received a ARC of this book. I wasn’t familiar with the author, but the brief description was immediately intriguing. I’ve found very few fantasy/historical novels (especially adult fiction, for some reason) that focus on the culture and history of the Inuit people. What’s more, the ancient trips of the Vikings to North America are included, another topic that I’ve rarely come across. And, now a resident of Minnesota where the Vikings and their previous trips here are kind of a big deal, this book felt like a no-brainer. And I’m pleased to report that not only did it live up to my excitement, but it surpassed it!
Omat’s being is made up of many parts, but most especially she carries the spirit of her deceased father in herself. This duel nature between a man’s spirit and a woman’s body has not prevented her from contributing to her small, family group, struggling to survive, mostly alone, out on the tundra. But when their small life is intruded upon by strangers, Omat’s role, shaman abilities, and future are suddenly, horribly, called into question. Now alone in the world, it is up to Omat to carve her own path to save her people and to merge the powerful spirits she’s walked with her entire life with the new deities being carried to her world from across the frozen sea.
One of the primary themes in this book is identity, most especially called into light through Omat’s journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance. The religious beliefs of her people state that the spirits of the deceased can come to life again in a newly born person. That person is then both the new embodiment of that being but also still their new self at the same time. For Omat, this complicated balance is made more difficult by the spirit inhabiting her coming from her father, a man who had been an important provider for their poor family group before his unexpected death. Omat is thus raised as a man, developing both the important and necessary roles of shaman and hunger and garnering the respect that comes along with these duties, but also acquiring the same dismissal attitude towards the womens’ work accomplished by the women in their family. I particularly enjoyed how this tension played out throughout the story, as we see Omat’s struggles to retain the independence and respect that came with her man’s role, but slowly learns to respect and see with a new eyes the crucial roles that women play. The author also neatly avoids falling into any traps that would make Omat’s journey of self-discovery feel too modern or anachronistic. Instead, it feels like a natural path for a character in her position in the time. Meaning, of course, that while she comes to a balance for herself, she is still an exception, even in her own eyes, to the traditional roles assigned to each group. It was a fascinating journey.
The story itself neatly weaves in fantastical elements that pull from Inuit folk tales and religious beliefs. These then, eventually, mix with the Vikings’ own belief system, and we even see the beginning tendrils of spreading Christianity and how that rubs up against these two other, older beliefs. Again, the author presented an interesting balance between exploring faith but also presenting walking/talking gods in the more recognizable, fantasy-based way. The Inuit folklore was especially strong, with several of the tales introduced in the beginning of the book coming to life throughout the story and playing a major role in influencing the outcomes of certain events. I also enjoyed the romantic story that is introduced about halfway through, perfectly balancing itself within the greater story as a whole without overshadowing Omat or her journey.
This was almost a perfect read for me, but there were a few dings against it that came out mostly in the first half of the book. For one, it is slow to get started. There’s a good third of the book to get through before the real action begins to take place, and while this portion is laying important groundwork, it simply read slowly and delayed my full immersion into the story.
I also wish that the publisher had marketed this book differently. Since it’s all out in the open anyways, it’s no spoiler that Omat is a woman. But the way the story plays out, in the beginning chapters of the book, readers, and Omat herself to some extent, aren’t aware that the main character is female. The reveal is then ruined by our previous knowledge from the book’s marketing. I’m guessing this was just a risk the publisher didn’t want to take, but I think that it underestimates readers and severely undercuts what could have been a great reveal, and one that tied neatly to the major themes of the book (our perceptions of gender roles).
The last thing wasn’t so much a mark against the book as a general warning: there are a few fairly graphic scenes dealing with violence and assault against women. Readers can kind of get a sense that the story is headed in this direction, but these scenes were still very hard to read.
But, those quibbles aside, I adored this book! The setting felt fresh and new, and Omat’s journey was both exciting as an adventure and fascinating as an introspection into the roles of men and women. If you enjoy historical fantasy, and especially if you’re longing for something new, NOT set in medieval Europe, definitely give “The Wolf in the Whale” a try!
Rating 9: Simply excellent! I’ll definitely be on the look-out for more books from this author!
Find “The Wolf in the Whale” at your library using WorldCat!