Published by Montlake Romance on August 16th 2016
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In the Barrens, a vast wilderness in northern Canada bordering the Arctic Circle, night consumes every hour of the winter. Humans are scarce; ferocious predators roam freely. Locals say spirits do, too.
Rookie cop Tana Larsson doesn’t mind the dark and quiet. Five months pregnant and hoping to escape the mistakes of her past, she takes a post in Twin Rivers, population 320. Maybe here she can find peace and community for her child.
But with her superior out of commission, Tana becomes the sole police officer in 17,500 square miles. One bitter night, she gets a call about the fatal wolf mauling of two students, and the only way to reach the remote scene is to enlist the help of the arrogant, irritatingly handsome Cameron “Crash” O’Halloran, a local bush pilot with a shady reputation for smuggling and a past cloaked in shadow.
When the macabre scene they uncover suggests violence much more sinister than animal, Tana must trust Crash if she wants to protect the town—and herself—from the evil that lurks in the frozen dark.
I never know what I’m going to get each time I start a Loreth Anne White novel. Every book of hers is a mixed bag of treasures and I’ve learned that appreciating her books is akin to appreciating crime fiction: the rush comes from getting lost in the intricate mystery and the horrific details of the crimes and the whodunnit guessing games rather than getting vested in its characters that are like chess pieces, moved around to suit the author’s purposes.
The cold, brutal violence is what hits you ‘In the Barren Ground’; White brings to life a malevolence that seems to be tied to an ancient evil, to things unseen but are never more felt and feared in the isolated far Canadian North. Characters talk in circles with averted eyes, never quite admitting to anything, content to sink the circumstances surrounding the mangled bodies in the oblique references to indigenous myth and bad juju. They lead, mislead and deceive, but they feed the imagination and provide the clues you badly need to get to the bottom of it all, even if they’re really talking about spirits, beasts and monsters. I’m quite inclined to believe all of it – that good is White’s way with words.
And that’s the fun bit.
But as with most crime novels however, White’s lead characters can’t ever be my favourites or memorable in their own right. They operate entirely in shades of grey, are too ugly to be adored or put on a literary pedestal, and are screwed up in a way that makes you believe they are beyond redemption. Tana and Crash exemplify all of it to a T. At times, they are downright dislikable but distanced as I am from them, do actually manage to sidestep the mess they’ve made of their lives to keep my focus on the developing story. Because of this, I’ve always thought of White’s leads as narrative puppets, manipulated around red-herrings and slippery slopes of reasoning that might lead nowhere. As a result, they’re also difficult to connect with, let alone empathise with at all.
For this reason I’d feel more comfortable classifying ‘In the Barren Ground’ as a police procedural with (very few) romantic elements than romantic suspense. Its appeal lies in the best-loved tropes of the horror genre and combines these hints of the supernatural in a remote location where nature’s laws overrun man’s. Or at least it’s what we’re led to think up until the last few chapters of the book. The big reveal, when it came, was an astonishing let down (it got close to veering into B-grade horror movie territory), the unravelled plot way less compelling than what it had been building up to, leaving me flabbergasted and limp with disbelief because it seemed too much of a cop-out to work.