Review: WINTERWOOD by Shea Ernshaw

Review: WINTERWOOD by Shea Ernshaw

Winterwood puts style over substance, but I don’t mind when the style is this good. A creeping, atmospheric romantic mystery from Shea Ernshaw, perfect for witchy moods and frosty weather.

Book Cover: Winterwood


Be careful of the dark, dark wood…

Especially the woods surrounding the town of Fir Haven. Some say these woods are magical. Haunted, even.

Rumored to be a witch, only Nora Walker knows the truth. She and the Walker women before her have always shared a special connection with the woods. And it’s this special connection that leads Nora to Oliver Huntsman—the same boy who disappeared from the Camp for Wayward Boys weeks ago—and in the middle of the worst snowstorm in years. He should be dead, but here he is alive, and left in the woods with no memory of the time he’d been missing.

But Nora can feel an uneasy shift in the woods at Oliver’s presence. And it’s not too long after that Nora realizes she has no choice but to unearth the truth behind how the boy she has come to care so deeply about survived his time in the forest, and what led him there in the first place. What Nora doesn’t know, though, is that Oliver has secrets of his own—secrets he’ll do anything to keep buried, because as it turns out, he wasn’t the only one to have gone missing on that fateful night all those weeks ago.

For as long as there have been fairy tales, we have been warned to fear what lies within the dark, dark woods and in Winterwood, New York Times bestselling author Shea Ernshaw, shows us why.

witchy girls and frozen boys

With their tiny town snowed in, the residents of Fir Haven and the nearby Camp for Wayward Boys aren’t going anywhere. With everyone else, Nora Walker (descended from witches) is confined to her family cabin or the frozen woods.

Those forces of nature provide an essential element of mystery: a closed circuit. Winterwood gives us just a few locations and a handful of characters to work with, with the promise that they’re all that’s needed to unravel the mystery of missing boys and ominous bone moths.

slow reveals in a long mystery

I have a lower tolerance for mystery plots than most readers. I love mystery elements woven into active storylines, but when the mystery is the story, I can get irritated if I feel that I’m being yanked around. Winterwood sometimes pushed this button. It’s a story style where the entire book is essentially exposition; everything is in place by chapter one; it’s just a matter of the reader discovering it.

I don’t think that’s always a bad thing. “Exposition” gets a bad rap because we usually only bring it up when it’s clunky and noticeable, but it’s an essential building block of stories. I have a theatre background, and many excellent plays (Ibsen’s Doll’s House, for example) operate the same way. They’re just a steady rollout of exposition, so even when nothing is “happening,” the reader is taken through a story arc of discovery.

But it’s a dangerous game to base an entire novel on slow exposition. Unfortunately, the devices Ernshaw uses to prevent the characters or the reader from learning crucial information are artificial and obvious: lost memory, “don’t tell me because I don’t want to know,” and my least favorite, having a POV character think about their own memories in purposefully vague and mysterious ways. Ernshaw shows incredible skill in other areas of writing, so it’s striking that those maneuvers are so clumsy. You can tell she’s scrambling for roadblocks to communication to stretch a very short tale into novel length.

perfect for fireside reading on autumn nights

I would still recommend Winterwood to the right reader, though. The imagery and immersiveness are top-notch. If you’re looking for a snowy, unsettling romance that feels like a campfire ghost story, this is exactly what you want.

And I’d never dream of spoiling the ending of a book, so just let me say… the ending. Was. Spectacular. The last half-dozen chapters bumped Winterwood up a whole star for me. Absolutely perfect.

Thank you to Simon Pulse for providing an advance review copy of this title for an honest review. No money changed hands for this review and all opinions are my own.

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