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Shea Ernshaw's WINTERWOOD -- Jen's Review

Thanks to partner NetGalley for the digital ARC of Shea Ernshaw’s Winterwood in exchange for an honest review. The book released Tuesday, November 5.

“I am a Walker. I am the thing whispered about, the thing that conjures goosebumps and nightmares” (loc. 131).

Evocative. Atmospheric. Beautifully written. Shea Ernshaw’s Winterwood is a gorgeous YA fantasy novel set in a world just next door to our own. Teenager Nora Walker, the Walker (or, perhaps, witch) at the center of the book, is an outcast from the world and from her family. ​

Her nightshade, her gift, has never revealed itself, so Nora leads a life separate from her small community, a life wedded to the powerful trees in the Wicker Woods and the bottomless Jackjaw Lake, but one in which she can never fully join the powerful matrilineal tradition that Nora’s mother has rejected. So Nora, who learned from her grandmother until her death, has to fight to continue living within the magic of the Walkers even while she is “as helpless as a girl by any other name” (loc. 235).

Nora’s heritage means that she is a finder of lost things in the Wicker Woods, and the home she shares with her mother is filled with treasures she has brought back when the moon is full and the trees asleep. At the opening of the novel, Nora is walking in the woods with her wolf/dog Fin when she discovers her “latest found item” (loc. 248), Oliver Huntsman, a boy missing from the Jackjaw Camp for Wayward Boys.

Nora rescues the boy and then must deal with the aftermath of her discovery. As Ernshaw’s novel unfolds, she delves into the Walker family’s Spellbook, which details the stories of Walker women, and into Oliver’s own perspective as he struggles with his loss of memory and comes to know the real Nora, the one outside the superstitions and rumors that surround her family. Both Nora and Oliver try to uncover the truth of Oliver’s disappearance and of the death of one of his companions from the camp.

Winterwood is just phenomenal. Shea Ernshaw beautifully builds a novel that feels like a dark fairytale, and I loved the line she draws between “the legends [Nora] know[s] to be true” and the stories the boys and townspeople tell, which “are lies. Born from fear and spite, not from history” (loc. 475). The legitimacy of Nora’s family story, which is centered on women, and the defiance of the norms the town tries to force upon them are supremely empowering. At one point, Nora declares, “My family is older than witches. . . . Older than the word itself” (loc. 1330). Oliver and Nora each have a loneliness, an emptiness, that draws them together, though they have a hard time overcoming their mutual mistrust. Their earnest attempts to take a risk and be vulnerable to each other are moving, even while both make it clear why it might seem safer not to let down the walls they’ve used for protection.

Though I was able to predict a part of the story arc, I enjoyed every moment of this novel, which is a dark, mysterious, and perfect YA read. The complexity of the characters beautifully centers this amazing and atmospheric book. Shea Ernshaw’s Winterwood would be an excellent fall or winter read, but it’s worth picking up regardless of the season.

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