The dead of winter is both the worst and the best time to read. It’s cold; you curl up with a book and a hot cup of tea. Maybe you have your dog next to you. Maybe there’s snow, or rain, or hail, or some other weather at your window. It’s cozy. It’s also, maybe, a little lonely.
Cold the Night, Fast the Wolves is not cozy, but it is a deep exploration of loneliness, desperation, and survival. Our main character, Sena, is a teenager who lost her mothers during a dangerous dog sled race that underpins the entire economy of her small ice-planet. In this book, if people don’t race, they train wolves, or fix sleds, or play host to the Corpos that drop down when the race is about to start. While everyone around her is consumed by their need to mine the extremely lucrative ore under the ice that reveals itself only seasonally, Sena only wants off the frozen rock that’s been the only home she’s ever known. But when she rescues a brutalized fighting wolf from a ruthless crime boss, she gets pulled into the deadly race, and surviving the run across thousands of miles of tundra is her only hope of getting money for a space convoy before the criminal underbelly catches up with her.
The novel can easily be split into two parts: before the race and during it. The build up to the race itself is a slow-paced justification of how Sena will do anything but work the race. Then, about halfway through, when literally every other door she could try has been shut, locked, or blown up, and Sena finally runs to the starting line, the drag bar never lets off the ice. As Sena fights against nature and the other teams, she becomes a leader on this massive Iditarod-inspired race through an arctic landscape. While she bonds with the other members of her scientific team, she’s betrayed over and over, leaving her with only her native knowledge and a very ornery wolf to rely on.
I do want to reassure you; the wolf does not die. But… there are moments that come close.
This book, a debut young adult science-fantasy novel by Meg Long, is the kind of story that warns you to ice over your heart before reading. As you read, as Sena drives herself forward with a single-mindedness that is frustratingly simplistic and weirdly perfect for a seventeen-year-old girl, you can’t help but warm to her. A deeply flawed character, her earnestness and (forgive the pun) dogged desire to stay out of the dog race across the planet creates a sympathy that slowly melts off the page and into your heart. It’s hard to like Sena, but she’s trying so hard and sometimes that’s worth a lot more than just being charming.
Cold the Night, Fast the Wolves tackles a lot of difficult subjects, but tends to keep them at arm’s length. Issues of homophobia, bigotry, classism, and even climate change are all mentioned, providing a background of gritty reality amidst the ice goblins and genetically modified racing wolves. Long doesn’t pursue any of these with much dedication, but for a book like this, firmly grounded in the deep POV of our teenage protagonist, Long doesn’t really need to. Death, violence, and problems of survival are easily contended with, as they are the problems that Sena deals with in the immediate. The other, cultural issues are background problems that only occasionally come up in slurs and bigotry.
While this lack of a deeper introspection into the internal struggles of various cultures is a weakness of the book, it’s perfectly acceptable for a YA novel that isn’t focused on delivering a morality message at the end of it. There are native/first-contact scavvers that live outside of commerce, and Corpos who live inside of the planet itself. There’s not a lot of trust (or any) between the scavvers and the corporate colonizers, and Sena is caught firmly in the middle, with one mother a scavver and the other from the corpo. These lines of bigotry are much more clearly drawn between the culture of haves and have-nots, but both sides consider themselves the haves. In Cold the Night there’s really no need to go deeper into the easily drawn metaphors between real-world first-nation people and issues; more explaining or additional characters would only muddy the ice-clear narrative. Sena wants to leave. For that she needs money, and eventually she will be forced to run the race.
Plots like these are predictable, but that’s to Long’s strength. She can focus on worldbuilding, on the twists in the middle of the large decisions, on the nature that threatens Sena and her wolf from all sides. It’s a frigid, emotionally rich book, and while Sena’s motivations and dead mothers could probably take the backseat in the narrative a little more often, the core survivalist story at the heart of this book is compelling and immersive. The worldbuilding is focused, with a whole frozen planet focused on the act of mining ore. Long doesn’t let herself get distracted. There’s the town; there are the woods; there is the nebulous Outer Space, where Sena is desperate to go. You don’t need much else.
I enjoy reading about characters who have a deep knowledge of their surroundings, and reading Sena as she teaches others, trains her wolf, and simply survives, is very satisfying. She makes bad choices, and a lot of them, but never because of incompetence. Her choices are driven by desperation, anger, and frustration. While this is slightly maddening to read, it ramps up the tension, like a pack of dogs straining at their harnesses, until the book finally lets loose and the plot races forward without any hope of stopping it.
Delivering a Jack London-style survival story, Cold the Night, Fast the Wolves only asks the readers to remember that those who survive are determined and ferocious, even in circumstances that require them to be kind, to have faith, and to trust in their own knowledge.
Linda H. Codega is an avid reader, writer, and fan. They specialize in media critique and fandom and they are also a short story author and game designer. Inspired by magical realism, comic books, the silver screen, and social activism, their writing reflects an innate curiosity and a deep caring and investment in media, fandom, and the intersection of social justice and pop culture. Find them on twitter @_linfinn.