Book: NORTHWOODS by Bill Schweigart
Genre: Horror, though the publisher lists it as urban fantasy
Series: Second book, first is THE BEAST OF BARCROFT
USA Release Date: February 16, 2016
Source: Arc provided by the publisher, Hydra, via NetGalley
Rating: 3.5/5 stars
Recommended?: Yes, with the caveat that for all its diverse characters, the presentation of the Ojibwe people and the use of Native American beliefs as monster-bait can be frustrating. The story is interesting, though, a fast-paced adventure with monsters and gore and a team-as-chosen-family that I really started to love by the end.
Note: Links to the books are Amazon affiliate links.
Some borders should never be crossed. From the author of The Beast of Barcroft comes a waking nightmare of a horror novel that’s sure to thrill readers of Stephen King and Bentley Little.
Ex–Delta Force Davis Holland, now an agent for the Customs and Border Protection, has seen it all. But nothing in his experience has prepared him for what he and the local sheriff find one freezing night in the Minnesota woods.
Investigating reports of an illegal border crossing, the two men stumble across a blood-drenched scene of mass murder, barely escaping with their lives . . . and a single clue to the mayhem: a small wooden chest placed at the heart of the massacre. Something deadly has entered Holland’s territory, crossing the border from nightmare into reality.
When news of the atrocity reaches wealthy cryptozoologist Richard Severance, he sends a three-person team north to investigate. Not long ago, the members of that team—Ben McKelvie, Lindsay Clark, and Alex Standingcloud—were nearly killed by a vengeful shapeshifter. Now they are walking wounded, haunted by gruesome memories that make normal life impossible. But there is nothing normal about the horror that awaits in the Northwoods.
When I first saw NORTHWOODS on NetGalley, I was immediately drawn by that cover, which is both interesting enough to make me want to read the story, and a great throwback to the cheesy monster horror movies that I love. There’s a lot in the summary that appealed to me: a monster in the Minnesota woods, cryptozoology, a team previously formed in the hunt for a shapeshifter and now dealing with the trauma of that, and I was excited to have the chance to read it.
This is very much a plot-driven story – as you might expect from a book about monstrous murders in the deep winter woods — but Schweigart has also created some fine characters here. Though I haven’t read the first book in the series, THE BEAST OF BARCROFT, I had no trouble immersing myself in the story, in large part, I think, because it opens with a new character, Davis Holland. Davis is a Black man who has seen too much war both as Delta Force and as Customs and Border Protection, and he is my absolute favorite character in the book. He balances federal and local law enforcement politics well, mostly with ease, but when it comes back to bite him in the ass, he doesn’t let anything stop him from protecting his new home.
I was also very intrigued by Lindsay Clark and Alex Standingcloud, though less so by Ben McKelvie, who generally comes across as the standard straight white guy asshole protagonist readers are supposed to root for. Lindsay is a white lesbian, smart and sharp and shaken by what happened to them in the previous book; Alex has been mostly estranged from his Ojibwe family, particularly his father, until he has to recover from the events of THE BEAST OF BARCROFT. Now the monstrous has come home to roost, and Alex is struggling with his own identity while trying to figure out what is killing people around him. While all three are dealing with their trauma, it feels particularly real when Lindsay and Alex are alone in the woods and dealing with their trauma in different ways.
There are multiple monsters in NORTHWOODS, terrible, frightening, and wondrous, and watching these two teams – Davis and his friend, Sheriff Gil Ramsey, work together from the first chapter, and Lindsay, Alex, and Ben come into the story from a different angle – try to figure out what has gone wrong, and how to save the people in the local towns, intrigued me enough I read the book in one sitting. The descriptions are sparse, but it works with the pacing, and I liked blunt writing style quite a bit.
The part I had the hardest time with was the Ojibwe characters and the use of Native American lore for monsters, which also occurs in THE BEAST OF BARCROFT, as referenced in this book. It often comes across as appropriative, and I am leery of books written by white people that use Native American religious belief as actual real life monsters. I also thought John Standingcloud’s dialog was off in the pacing and word choices. (John is Alex’s father.) I’m not sure about the use of “Standingcloud” as their last name, either; all references I can find to it use “Standing Cloud,” and I can’t confirm it is usually an Ojibwe name. I can’t speak to whether the details are correct – there is quite a bit about Ojibwe burial rituals, for example – but generally they seem, to me, to be done with respect and not there for exploitation. However, the Red Cliff reservation is real, as is the Red Cliff Band, and there is no indication from the author that he worked with anyone from the reservation so as not to cause harm with his writing.
There is also a spoilery thing that happens which I found infuriating. I will put it at the end of the review, so you can skip it if you choose, but it is related to this concern.
I enjoyed the hell out of the story, and I liked that the characters were so diverse, though at times, it felt like a surface diversity, with no real weight to their experiences as men of color or a white lesbian to give them depth. I am leery of the use of the Ojibwe people, and particularly the Native American religious beliefs as a background for the monsters, particularly with the new information the characters receive at the end. In many ways, the Ojibwe characters are there as background for the white characters to learn what they need to know about the monsters, and that’s a pretty shitty use of the Magical Native American trope (which does not require actual magic, but is more about the deep spiritual wisdom provided by the character to the white main characters). I really do want to read more about Davis, Alex, and Lindsay, though Ben and the rich white cryptozoologist can spend 100% less time on screen and I’d be happy, and I’ll be picking up THE BEAST OF BARCROFT to see where it all began.
I am furious that a huge part of the ending is the death and resurrection of the great white savior, Ben, while John Standingcloud and a number of unnamed Ojibwe men sacrifice themselves so the white people can live. The fact that Alex and Davis both survive salvaged this a little, but it really drove home the fact that the Ojibwe people were really there to be background for the white people a lot of the time, and there is a point where Alex literally tells the rich white cryptozoologist that he is the savior, he has to live, so Alex and Davis will stay behind to make sure the white man and the white woman can escape, which is so much bullshit I almost couldn’t finish the book.