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Alone in the Wild by Kelley Armstrong

Reviewed by Wendy Hawkin

A Yukon camping getaway in December with a Newfoundland dog and a wolf-dog tells you how much Casey and Eric need a break alone together. Eric Dalton is the Sheriff of Rockton, a Yukon town of two hundred rebellious refugees and Casey Duncan is the detective. There is one more law officer in this town, Sheriff Will Anders, who’s holding down the fort while his friends escape for two days. Literally. Rockton is a fort in the wilderness, complete with walls and gates. People have to apply to live in Rockton and everyone accepted is there escaping something life-threatening, be they perpetrator or victim or both.

Casey and Eric met in book one, cohabited in book two, and now, in book five, they’ve settled into a marriage. So, as couples do at this stage in their relationship, they’re contemplating what comes next. Children. However, Casey was beaten so badly by a gang of men when she was a teenager, she isn’t sure she can conceive or carry a baby to term. This obsession with parenthood and babies is a theme that gets triggered in the first scene and carries through to the end.

Eric has gone hunting with the wolf-dog and Casey wakes up alone in the woods. Well, alone except for Storm, her bouncy one-hundred-and-forty pound Newfoundland dog who is now sixteen months old and learning to track. Casey and Storm go to collect wood for the fire, and Casey hears something. A baby crying. Except there’s nothing anywhere but a heap of snow in the middle of the clearing. A trained homicide detective, Casey is immediately suspicious, then she begins to dig. What she uncovers is bizarre and heartbreaking: a murdered woman with an infant beneath her jacket clutched to her chest. The rest of the book is a chase to discover murderer and motive.

The baby is tiny, a month old at best—a winter baby—born in a time of hardship. She’s healthy though, despite being buried alive in the snow, freezing and dehydrated. Someone’s been nursing her, though not the dead woman, who Casey quickly discovers is a wildling with tattoos.

This story delves into life in the various communities outside Rockton, each with its own morals, rules, and cultures. Besides the folks who live in the First and Second Settlements, there are traders and tribes of hostiles roaming the woods. And as Casey pursues the killer, we meet representatives from all these communities.

Would you ever contemplate living alone in the woods? Some people do. Maryanne, a professor who was once Rockton’s biologist, left the town of two hundred to live with another woman and their partners in the woods: a doctor, a wilderness guide, an eco-builder, and a biologist. They had plans and hopes and wilderness experience until the hostiles attacked, killed the men, and took the women.

Maryanne, who Casey meets and brings back to Rockton, explains that the hostiles also have rules. Sex must be consensual and women choose partners as necessary protectors. Women are not allowed to bear children, so if they get pregnant, it’s terminated. Rape is forbidden. The female shaman conducts rituals and makes the teas: two types … one that creates a state of “tranquil unreality” and another for special occasions that ramps everyone up into a “wild, primal frenzy.”

A complexity of this story is that Eric and his brother Jacob were born to settlers. When his parents left him alone to go trading, Sheriff Dalton and his wife took him to Rockton and “adopted” him without his parents’ consent. Eric’s background naturally affects the way he lives. He was too young to remember but still wonders about his real parents.

Much crime fiction is plot-driven—follow the clues, solve the murder—but in this book more than in her other four novels, Armstrong balances plot and character development. Casey grows with every encounter and reveals more of her hidden personality. Throughout the book, we are privy to several different types of relationships. People come to the Yukon to escape the south but bring their problems and prejudices with them.

As usual, Kelley Armstrong delivers a ­tense, suspenseful mystery, with her characteristically clean, tight prose. With so many eccentric suspects, Casey is kept guessing and second-guessing right until the big reveal. In the end, Casey and Eric get their quiet moment alone, and it’s time to contemplate love and families and what they want next. This series could go on forever. Let’s hope it does.

Alone in the Wild is published by Doubleday Canada.

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