My original WHITE DEATH audiobook review and many others can be found at Audiobook Reviewer.
Few things attract me to a book faster than cover art by the estimable Matthew Revert, the promise of a snowy, frozen terrain, and a wicked creature hellbent on mankind’s destruction. All three of these elements are present and accounted for in Christine Morgan’s White Death, narrated by Matt Godfrey. While there are elements of horror and the supernatural, White Death is primarily a work of historical fiction. What segments of savagery it possesses are primarily due to all-too-human factors, as well as the inhospitable climes of a killer blizzard and a long, cold winter in the Montana Territory, circa 1888.
After Pierre LeCharles’s wife falls sick, the hunter and trapper must seek out the mythical wanageeska in order to cure her. Their violent encounter early on only prompts further revenge as the unnatural wanageeska unleashes a brutal storm upon the men invading its territory, and the settlement of Far Enough soon becomes enshrouded in a blinding blizzard.
The story of LeCharles, his wife Two-Bird, and her father Runninghorse serve as a narrative framing device for the violence inflicted upon the settlers of Far Enough. Morgan gives us plenty of detail on how the men and women settlers fare this Storm of the Century in a story that strikes a powerful chord, and at its heart, this is more than merely a story of man versus the elements. This is a story of American exploration, and even exploitation, as the borders of the US expanded westward and further encroached upon Native land and settlements. The wanageeska may be a monster of myth, but its encounter with LaCharles and the Far Enough settlers serves as a powerful parable of mankind overreaching in its attempts to conquer nature. Nature is violent and toothsome, and more often then not, it can have the last say on who is really at the top of the food-chain. Spoiler alert: it ain’t us!
Morgan’s cast of characters is expansive, and oftentimes unwieldy so. Listening to White Death, I found myself repeatedly questioning who these characters were, if they were being newly introduced or had already been presented, and I simply couldn’t keep track of who was who as Morgan regularly switched up perspectives. I suspect it might be easier to follow such a large group in print, where you can flip back a few pages to refresh your memory. It didn’t help any that the characters are fairly thin in terms of development. They lack any distinguishing features or wow-moments to separate them from the pack, and most of them pretty well blurred together. The main exception was William Thorpe, the founder of Far Enough, who aims to establish the territory as a real town fueled by miners and prospectors rushing for gold and silver in the nearby mountains. Although mighty in his own mind and rich in wealth, Thorpe, too, is no match for the blizzard and the harsh winter alters him ingloriously, frighteningly violent fashion as the weather wears on.
It’s in the details of Far Enough’s settlers braving the grueling arctic snap where White Death is at its strongest. None in Far Enough are free of the wanageeska’s wrath and Morgan skillfully depicts the horrors of being caught in a blizzard, of the human body succumbing to freezing temperatures, frostbite, and fatal cases of hypothermia. While the nature of the wanageeska is mythical, the impact of the arctic horror is utterly real. Several sequences are downright brutal as Morgan describes in unflinching detail the ways in which extreme weather conditions can break down a man, woman, or child, both physically and psychically.
Equally unflinching is Matt Godfrey’s eight-hour narration. Over the course of this past year, Godfrey has become one of my favorite narrators and I trust him to deliver a crisp reading with solid production values. White Death is certainly no exception, and he exhibits a wide range of tones and character voices, hindered only by the large number of characters presented on the page. The overwhelming number of speaking parts eventually blurred together for me, until the majority of characters separated from one another only by gender.
Despite the abundance of characters, the constant rotation through which hindered my attention and made following the various threads of this story difficult in audio form, I did find plenty else to like in White Death. Fueled by Native America myth, Morgan presents a number of sequences of arctic survival horror, giving readers compelling looks at the determination of the human spirit, as well as the fragility of one’s psyche in obscenely pressing trials brought on by extreme weather. White Death may not be a consistently captivating listen, but it is most certainly a fascinating one.
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