THE DARKNESS by Ragnar Jonasson
Minotaur Books 10/16/18
CBTB Rating: 5/5
The Verdict: atmospheric, binge-worthy, and a contender for favorite book of the year
Ragnar Jonasson, you have simply outdone yourself. Just when I thought I couldn’t love Ragnar’s books more, he goes and writes THE DARKNESS - and man, is it excellent. Already known around the world for his modern classic Dark Iceland series, Ragnar proves with THE DARKNESS that his winning brand of crime fiction can work just as well - if not better - in a new series as it did in his Ari Thor books. THE DARKNESS has all the brooding atmosphere of the Dark Iceland books with a creativity and breath-of-fresh-air protagonist all its own. Readers will travel eagerly from the streets of Reykjavik to the desolate wilds of Iceland alongside Hulda, a detective whose retirement is on the horizon—and who is determined to make the most of her time left on the force. There’s an addictiveness to THE DARKNESS that elevates this read—Jonasson beautifully balances slow-burning plotting with binge-worthy tension, and the result is just plain gripping. There’s so much that works so well in this book, and I have a feeling Jonasson’s new series will become my favorite of his work… that is, until we see what this talented writer comes up with next. If THE DARKNESS isn’t yet on your fall reading list, it absolutely belongs there. There’s little doubt in my mind that this book will be one of my favorites of 2018.
The body of a young Russian woman washes up on an Icelandic shore. After a cursory investigation, the death is declared a suicide and the case is quietly closed.
Over a year later Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdóttir of the Reykjavík police is forced into early retirement at 64. She dreads the loneliness, and the memories of her dark past that threaten to come back to haunt her. But before she leaves she is given two weeks to solve a single cold case of her choice. She knows which one: the Russian woman whose hope for asylum ended on the dark, cold shore of an unfamiliar country. Soon Hulda discovers that another young woman vanished at the same time, and that no one is telling her the whole story. Even her colleagues in the police seem determined to put the brakes on her investigation. Meanwhile the clock is ticking.
Hulda will find the killer, even if it means putting her own life in danger.
With so many levels of this book working so well, let’s start with the very first element of THE DARKNESS that caught my eye: the book’s protagonist, Hulda. I love a good crime series, and I love getting invested in a character who you can come back to over and over again. When I first learned of THE DARKNESS, I was immediately struck by just how few of the series I personally follow feature a middle-aged female protagonist. There are so many middle-aged men in the pages of the books I love - in fact, my all-time favorite series (Nesbo’s Harry Hole series) falls under that exact category - but the same really can't be said for middle-aged women. Now, this isn’t to say that there aren’t also tons of examples of strong female leads in crime fiction as well, but I was struck by how few of the female characters I’ve read are introduced to readers later in their lives. In THE DARKNESS, readers meet protagonist Hulda Hermannsdottir at the end of a long and fruitful career; in fact, we meet her right as she is given the news that she is going to be forced into early retirement. Having worked tirelessly in her career for years, Hulda’s astonishment and anger at this turn of events becomes a focal point of the story. To Hulda (and the reader’s) chagrin, it becomes apparent that she is being pushed out of her job to make space for a young (and male) hot-shot to rise more quickly through the ranks.
Hulda is no stranger to discrimination—she has had to advocate tirelessly for every inch of upward movement she has had in her career, and she isn’t about to give up without a fight. Readers will find themselves firmly in Hulda’s corner as she speaks out against the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated field, and will cheer for her as she determines to solve one last case before she’s shown the door. The case she selects? A cold case involving the death of an asylum seeker, a young woman who fled from Russia to Iceland, only to die under suspicious circumstances. Beyond the surface-level intrigue of this crime, there’s a deeper poignancy to this pairing that I loved: a female police officer seeking out justice for another woman, a woman whose life the male-dominated system has largely tossed aside, felt at once raw and empowering. There has been lots of conversation recently about the role of female victims in crime fiction—and THE DARKNESS is, to me, proof of how this role can be written tactfully and without feeling exploitative. Jonasson handles this potentially sensitive subject matter beautifully, and readers will be rooting for Hulda as she impresses upon her colleagues the value of this asylum-seeker’s life—and the value of finding justice for the brutal and heartless way in which it was ended.
Beyond the story’s compelling protagonist, there is the ever-present “character” of Iceland. As in Jonasson’s Dark Iceland books, the landscape of Iceland itself plays a significant role in THE DARKNESS. This is one of the qualities I love most about Ragnar Jonasson’s writing; Iceland has such natural beauty, so much of it very spare and unforgiving, and its influence seems to infuse every page of Jonasson’s books. THE DARKNESS is no exception. Though Hulda works and lives in the city of Reykjavik, her investigation quickly takes her out into the wilds of the country. In both Hulda’s present and a series of flashbacks by an unnamed narrator, readers witness the beauty of Iceland’s natural landscape. I typically prefer books set in cities, but Jonasson always manages to strike a beautiful balance between the energy of city life and the truly stunning mystique of Iceland’s more remote towns—and if you’re not yet sure what I’m talking about, you can check out this photo tour of Siglufjordur, the town that plays host to much of Jonasson’s Dark Iceland series. In THE DARKNESS, readers will be all too eager to see Iceland’s natural beauty - and, occasionally, its dangers - through Hulda’s eyes. Reading THE DARKNESS transported me out of New York City and back to one of my favorite parts of the world, and I loved every moment of this chilling journey.
THE DARKNESS showcases an author who has reached a new level of maturity. Ragnar Jonasson has always been a superb writer, but there's a precision of plotting - and a willingness to take risks - on display here that elevated this book over the Dark Iceland series for me. I would absolutely hate to spoil the inventiveness that's at work here for readers—it's actually better to go into this one blind in that respect, but suffice it to say that Jonasson has pulled out all the stops to make this new series unlike anything you've read before. Jonasson is an author at the top of his game in THE DARKNESS, and if his track record is any indication, his next book will be even better. There’s a little bit of magic in Jonasson’s writing that I’m not quite sure any words of mine will quite be able to capture—so instead, let's try something a little different: let me paint you a little picture of how I felt while reading THE DARKNESS, and how I'm sure you will feel while reading it, too. Reading THE DARKNESS feels like you've captured that perfect peacefulness of a snow day and found a way to carry it around with you in your book bag. Imagine that you’re sitting in your home or your apartment by a window. You don't have anywhere to be that day, and you're looking at out at the snow falling on the street, a cup of coffee at hand and a gripping book on your lap. That book is THE DARKNESS, and you are going to love it.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review. All opinions my own.
Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Minotaur Books (October 16, 2018)
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