Nora Walker is many things. Isolated, friendless, lonely, a little odd, in tune with nature. The one thing she is not is the very thing other kids taunt her for being: a witch. Generations of Walker women have lived near Jackjaw Lake and the eerie Wicker Woods, each with a special gift that Nora’s grandmother calls their “nightshade.” One woman could communicate with birds, another could see other people’s dreams, another could calm wild bees. At seventeen Nora’s gift still hasn’t made itself known, and so she believes she has none, that the Walker legacy of witchcraft will wither with her. Then one evening she finds a lost boy in the woods and everything changes.
Deep in the heart of the Pacific Northwest is the town of Fir Haven. Like most mountain towns, it has a small year-round population and a large seasonal tourist crush. During the summer months, Jackjaw Lake, a few miles north of Fir Haven, is packed with outsiders, but during the winter the only lakeside inhabitants are an old man, a camp for troubled boys, and the Walker women. Everyone else lives down in town, far from the bottomless lake and the eerie Wicker Woods.
Only the Walkers dare to enter the Wicker Woods. Something about that part of the forest lures in things that are missing. Most of the time the things Nora finds on her midnight excursions are small, forgettable objects. Then she finds Oliver Huntsman, a boy from the Camp for Wayward Boys who disappeared two weeks before. He cannot remember how long he has been in the woods nor how he got there. Nora takes him home with a vow to return him to the camp the following day. And that’s when things go really awry.
Secrets bleed through the cracks as Nora tries to untangle Oliver’s ominous past. He knows more than he says about what happened to him and another boy who is also missing under suspicious circumstances, Nora is sure of it. Uncovering the truth about Oliver reveals her own secrets and that of the enemies she didn’t know she had. Before it’s all over, Nora will face an impossible choice: save herself or break the world.
Set in the same universe as Shea Ernshaw’s first novel The Wicked Deep, Winterwood is full of dark magic and unfair deaths and brave young women. Nora is stronger than she knows and bolder than she feels. Where Oliver knows the worst that life has to offer, Nora only thinks she does. She isolates herself to protect herself from those who might try to harm her, while Oliver knows that isolation isn’t the same thing as safety or protection. It might lessen the physical or psychological pain, but it won’t cure or prevent it. Oliver isn’t at the Camp for Wayward Boys for the same reasons as his bunkmates, and they know it. Being different makes Oliver and Nora targets of ridicule and potential prey. Without her nightshade, Nora must defend herself with her wits, but if Oliver is any indication she could still very well lose.
In the beginning, Suzy and the boys from the camp seem underdeveloped, but there is so much more to them than first meets the eye. Fiction has a nasty habit of rehabilitating bad men by having them act compassionately toward a likeable woman. At first it seems like that’s Suzy’s role with the boys, that she will redeem them in the eyes of the reader. We like Suzy. She’s not quite what Nora expected, not the mean girl from school who ignores Nora until she needs her. But Suzy is more complicated than Nora and the reader give her credit for.
The boys, too, are more than what we initially think. Although they believe they don’t deserve to be stuck out at the camp, it soon becomes clear that they are there for a reason. They earned their place there and Suzy is not their way out. Society insists that the love of a good woman can fix a bad man, but Ernshaw shows us that this isn’t true. Sometimes an abusive man is just an abusive man. He may have had troubles in childhood that set him on this path, but he has chosen to stay on it and no woman, no matter how interesting or attractive, can guide him off it. He is who he is.
As much as I was drawn in by the story, the structure of the novel didn’t quite work for me. Much of the action is repeated over and over again. It’s a constant stream of either Oliver or Suzy asking to stay the night at Nora’s house then leaving in a huff the next morning, and of Nora deciding to not solve the mystery solely for plot contrivance reasons then changing her mind then changing it again. The plot itself—Nora investigating what happened to Oliver and the other missing/presumed dead boy—is captivating, as are the characters and setting. Thankfully they outshine the frustrating repetition.
Winterwood by Shea Ernshaw is the kind of young adult fantasy novel that is practically made for reading while wrapped up in a blanket and sipping a cup of hot chocolate while a winter storm rages outside. It is haunting and foreboding, mysterious and romantic, peculiar and unexpected. Nora Walker and Oliver Huntsman are sure to enchant.
Winterwood is available from Simon Pulse.
Alex Brown is a teen services librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.