(Disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of Hard Winter for review purposes.)
Hard Winter by Neil Davies is the first-person narrative of 50-something Englishman Norman Leonard, an Everyman battling for survival in a bleak, post-apocalyptic landscape of ice and snow. Davies is a master of characterisation. Norman is a flawed and conflicted character, full of fear and self-loathing, and it is his flaws that make him so sympathetic; it is only too easy for the reader to identify with him and to think, “There but for the grace of God (and futuristic Ice Ages) go I.” It won’t be much of a spoiler to reveal that the hardships Norman endures bring him ultimately to a kind of redemption.
And oh, the suspense! That’s another thing that the author handles superbly well. There were some genuinely heart-thumping moments when I could not foresee how our reluctant hero was ever going to extricate himself from the onslaught of death and terror. Of course, the fact that I cared about what happened to him made it all the more suspenseful.
And the nitpicks? (If you’re a regular reader of my reviews, you just know there are going to be some). There’s a supernatural element to this story that didn’t entirely win me over (I won’t reveal the nature of the villain – spoilers and all that – but I will say that it has something to do with The Roar). Now don’t get me wrong, I love my supernatural creatures as much as the next speculative fiction fan, but I felt that it was tacked on to the story. All the other threats to Norman’s survival are grounded in the very realistic possibility of falling prey to starvation, hypothermia or human villainy. The creatures leaped straight out of mythology with no explanation and unaccompanied by any other unreal agents. That being said, there is a poignant moment towards the end of the book where Norman and his friends realize that their foes might be more than just murderous monsters, and that flutter of empathy the reader feels for them makes their inclusion worthwhile.
I also would have preferred a slightly firmer editorial hand. Norman mentions feeling “nauseous” a lot (12 counts of “nauseous” and 3 counts of “nausea”, according to my handy dandy Kindle search option), when the correct word is “nauseated”. There’s a slight excess of filtering (one of my pet peeves, but judging by the number of indie books I read with this issue, I’m the only reader in the world that cares). And Davies has an ever-so-slight tendency towards repetition in the interests of hammering his point home to the reader.
Ultimately, though, my nitpicks are just that – minor criticisms of issues that are unlikely to bother anybody except for the most pedantic of readers. I highly recommend Hard Winter to lovers of apocalyptic fiction and character-driven horror.
(At the time of writing, the ebook on Amazon was available for 99 cents. It’s worth a lot more than that. Snap it up now before the opportunity is gone.)