A dystopian life near the Blackstone River

“The trap was empty and the snow was bloody, which meant one of three things …

  1. The animal had gotten itself loose, making a mess in the process. Unlikely. Too much blood.
  2. Wolves had gotten to it and somehow managed to drag the carcass out of the trap. Even more unlikely. Not enough blood. Or hair. Besides, their tracks would have been obvious.
  3. Conrad had poached my kill.”

Tyrell Johnson’s debut novel, The Wolves of Winter, begins with that scene, which introduces us to Lynn (she hates being called Gwen or Gwendolynn) McBride and her circumstances.

At 23 years of age, she and her extended family have been living in the Yukon wilderness, north of the Blackstone River area and west of the former Dempster Highway, for the last seven years. It’s been a hardscrabble existence in a world changed by nuclear war, the resulting climate change to a colder world, and the need to stay north and isolated due to the savage flu that has ravaged the world’s population centres.

The cold seems to keep the flu at bay for the most part, though Lynn and her father did finally catch it while they were living in Eagle, Alaska. It was his death and the arrival of the Immunity hunters that prompted their escape to the even more remote Yukon wilderness.

She’s not quite sure what year it is. The world began to go to hell while they were living in Chicago, before they came north. By then, the climate had already chilled, but it was the flu—and some other secrets that Lynn only learns as an adult—that sent them north, first to Eagle, and then farther into the bush. By that time, anything resembling the season called summer was pretty much a fading memory.

This dystopian first novel (book one of a proposed trilogy) is Johnson’s first published novel. It’s set in the Yukon, but he hadn’t actually been here until he came to Whitehorse for last month’s Yukon Writers’ Festival, so he was a little nervous during his reading at the Live Words event on May 2.

“At every other reading that I’ve done, no one knows much about the Yukon, so now is the test,” he said. “If I’ve got anything wrong, just don’t tell me. Thank you for having me here, It’s been fun so far.”

The book is being compared to such young-adult novels as James Dashner’s The Maze Runner, and Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, but you could also think of Stephen King’s The Stand (as far as the disease subplot is concerned).

Lynn has gone through most of her teen years without anyone around other than her immediate family and the close friends they’ve travelled with. The only male she’s not related to is way too young for her, and too much like a brother, so when the stranger named Jax wanders into their lives, she has all sorts of stirrings that she’s really not equipped to deal with psychologically or emotionally.

The external problem in the novel (other than the Conrad referred to earlier) comes from the group called Immunity, short for Disease Containment and Immunity Advancement, who are hunting down anyone who seems to have survived the flu, and are especially keen to find Jax.

There are some oddities about the book. There are no Gwich’in people anywhere near the family, which seems strange as this area was their traditional ground—but perhaps the flu was hard on First Nations people. There’s really no way Lynn could know.

The other thing is that there are very few wolves in this story. They’re heard off in the distance and Lynn does cross paths with one later on, but their absence makes the title choice seem odd.

While Johnson intends there to be sequels, and there are loose plot threads galore, this feels like a story that’s complete enough that you’re not left with a cliffhanger. It was satisfying as a single novel, which isn’t always the case with this sort of book.

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