[TW: Off-screen and on-screen rape]
Omat lives between two worlds. She was born a girl with a man’s spirit. She came into the world dead, but the great wolf Singarti gave her her father’s spirit. Now she lives her life as a man, preparing for the day when she can go on her first hunt and make her first kill — thus securing her manhood. She is also invested in following her grandfather’s footsteps and becoming a shaman. But one day someone in her village points out that she has a woman’s body. Later, the gods and spirits stop listening to her, bringing no food for her starving people. When new Inuit people show up one day, their leader takes Omat as his third wife — setting in motion her plans to save her people. As she journeys on, she meets a Viking man with new gods. Now, her plans affect more than just her small village.
This is a book that starts off as a slow burn as it steadily builds and builds into a roaring bonfire. We follow Omat from her birth all the way until adulthood. She is exceptionally clever and brave. But she is also too quick to act, not thinking about the consequences. For instance, she flies to the Moon Man to ask him to help her starving village. But the Moon Man is not happy with her, believing she has broken the rules of the Inuit people by hunting as a woman. He does not care that she is a man, that she carries a man’s spirit. He strips away her magic.
Other characters include Puja, her aunt (or Little Sister, since she was the little sister of Omat’s father; and Omat carries her father’s spirit). She is a strong, kind woman. Kiasak is Omat’s cousin; he is both supportive and envious of her. There is also Brandr, the Viking man she meets. In a way, he is trapped by the ways of his people but longs to break free.
While there is a plot of Omat seeking to help her people and regain favor with the spirits (especially her animal guide Singarti, the wolf), the book is mainly focused on her as a character and the relationships she has with the people around her. The friendship she forms with Brandr is truly special and great to read about how it develops. The bond with her cousin, Kiasak, is so strong that she would save him despite his envy of her. Along the way, some horribly unspeakable things happen to Omat. However, she is not defined by these things; they don’t make her what she is. She is defined by her strength as a man and as a woman. She has her own shortcomings, such as initially dismissing anything she sees as womanly and weak, only later realizing those things simply hold a different kind of strength.
There wasn’t a single character that I couldn’t clearly visualize. The settings, the scenes…combined with the writing, this novel evokes all of the senses. We feel the warmth of the caribou fur as we venture out into the frigid air. We smell the raw seal meat before it melts away on the tongue. The imagery is astounding.
The author did a lot of research and show her sources in the end. And the research and effort put into this book really show. She admits that she may not have gotten everything right, being an outsider. However, you can certainly tell the respect and dignity she has treated the various Inuit beliefs with along with various Norse beliefs. The premise of the book is based around an account that the Vikings and Inuit people met around the time of Leif Erikson. The author has expanded upon that in a stunning way.
Near the end, the book seamlessly shifts a bit more from character to plot-focused. There is an epic battle that takes place. Something I wish is that we would’ve gotten to see just a bit more of the battle itself. While there are some spectacular moments, I felt that we mostly just saw who was fighting — as opposed to the actual fighting itself.
If there’s a reason I think other people might not like this book or find it too hard to read, it would be the multiple mentions of rape and sexual assault. (Spoiler warning: I do want to point out that the main character is raped at one point.) The book, in my opinion, does not use these moments simply for the shock factor. They aren’t used to define a character, and they are never treated lightly. However, the story doesn’t shy away from it. For example, we hear a tale of how a woman was forcefully taken by her brother. She later became the sun and he the moon. Now, the moon constantly chases her in the sky — hoping to take her once more. While sexual assault is certainly not the main focus of the book, I do feel that readers should be warned that it is brought up multiple times. Another, much more minor reason, others might not enjoy this book is that it’s more of a slow burn at first, which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
The Wolf in the Whale is like a fire on a cold day. I would sit down to read and all of a sudden an hour had slipped by. This is an incredibly well researched book that I would highly recommend.
[I received a digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley.]