As I type this, it's a Northwestern blizzard outside. Normally, I have a decent view of the Space Needle from my balcony, but it's entirely obscured this evening by snow--a sure sign of bad tidings. Given how temperate Seattle is, an upset in the weather pattern can shut down the city. As I walked home from work, I ducked into my favorite bar with every intention of warming up with a book. I brought the latest volume of Northlanders with me, thinking that the snowy cover and Viking set pieces would fit with the dreary forecast.
The Plague Widow is a stand-alone volume in the Northlanders series--do not fear the "Book Four" on the cover; the characters within are brand-new and so is the setting. It's a perfect jumping-on point in one of the consistently better books on the market. In 1020 A.D., a small Viking village succumbs to a plague outbreak. The superstitious residents immediately assume this is divine retribution, but a new priest, Boris, attempts to educate the townspeople on the "idea of communicable disease."
"That...even the breath from a sick person can cause disease to take hold in another. A mother kissing her child, or a young woman her lover. It's not a matter of luck, or fate, or divine will--but simple biology."
Of course, he is greeted with shouts of "Heathen!" but his words convince the town's lord, known only as "the old man." Soon, Boris orders that the sick be cast out from the town and the gates closed behind them, allowing no trade with outsiders until winter's end--a season that can last seven months. Food must be rationed and power is tenuously balanced, with the most fearsome villagers immediately grasping at whatever footholds they can find to leverage their needs. The newly widowed Hilga and her daughter have much to lose without a patriarch, especially since Hilga refuses to blink under the gaze of Gunborg, the local muscle who is capable of any terrifying nightmare.
The Plague Widow is, as its back copy notes, "pure survival horror." Paranoia deteriorates sane men and women, as do pride and lust. This is a small village made smaller by the locked gates and severed contact with the outside world. The violence is cutting, sharpened by the chill of ubiquitous snow, but writer Brian Wood knows how to use quiet moments to devastate. In the first chapter, after listening to Boris describe how disease can be passed, a hopeless Hilga forces her daughter to kiss her plague-stricken father and promises that she will never ask her daughter to do anything again. "If Boris was right...," she thinks, "the promise would take care of itself."
Brian Wood is a writer of chameleonic abilities: he also pens the political DMZ, the mixed-tape-esque anthology Demo, and the indie Local, among others. Northlanders is entirely of its own voice, full of purposefully anachronistic dialogue--contemporary slurs are commonplace and readers are spared "thees" and "thous." The fears and appetites are timeless even if the setting is not, but none of this would work as well without artist Leandro Fernandez, who fills faces with emotion and backgrounds with scenic snowscapes just out of everyone's reach. He illustrates mad wolves and even a steer as it is impaled with frozen bark from an ice-snapped tree. The swords and axes look heavy with actual weight and battered from everyday use. Plus, the covers by Massimo Carnevale serve as linger-worthy breaks between chapters.
It's all too convincing, and as I watched the snow pile up outside and listened to the few patrons within the bar--one of whom coughed and sniffled at the worst possible moments (plague!)--the bleak narrative offered no reprieve. The isolation compounds until escape is the only option. I never finished a beer so quickly.