White Sky, Black Ice, Stan Jones
Series: Nathan Active, 1
White Sky, Black Ice by Stan Jones was an excellent, well written book. The story is about an Alaskan State Trooper, Nathan Active, investigating the suicides of two people who died within a few days of each other. The story takes place in a remote village in Alaska.
The protagonist, Nathan Active, is an Inupiat or as more commonly known as an”Eskimo.” The author explains that most Native Americans today prefer the term ”Inupiat” as opposed to “Eskimo” which at times can be used as a derogatory term by white men. Nathan was given away at birth by his teen mother and raised by white parents in Anchorage, Alaska. He knows very little about his heritage and doesn’t seem interested in learning more either. However, spending a little time in his birth mother’s village may soon change his mind over the course of the series. Maybe.
This novel is what I would call, a “thinking man’s mystery.” The plot is intelligent and a bit conventional but not by much. The setting in the tundra was memorable and well done with the descriptions of the harsh west wind gusts and below freezing temperatures. The author made the Chukchi village a memorable visit. The characters are quirky with more than a few standing out. The houses there lack a street address. The people there like to fish and hunt for caribou. They also like to drink – a lot. To improve life and create jobs, a new mining company opens and seems to have an immediate positive impact on social issues where in one area, it decreases the domestic abuse of the Inupiat women. The mining company’s success soon becomes a symbol of hope for a better life in the village that’s described as having “bad schools and too much drinking and fighting.”
Nathan has his hands full with two suicides and in the background there’s troublesome bootleggers leaving Chukchi into another village where it’s banned. There’s some political wrangling involving an election to ban liquor in Chukchi of which the results are given towards the end of the story. Also something is killing off”whitefish and arctic char in the Nuliakuk” river. An observation that proves useful later.
Nathan’s boss keeps telling him that the suicides are just that. There’s rumors floating around that one of the victim’s family has a curse put on them due to some blood feud. Nathan digs deeper and bumps heads with some important people who eventually threaten his livelihood if he doesn’t shut the investigation down.
The suspense part of the story depended on people with inside information who could put the pieces together. The big reveal in the story had more to do with motive than the perpetrator. The conflict was believable and grew naturally within the construct of the story. The violence was minimal. The author didn’t linger much around the crime scene.
All the things I enjoy in mysteries came together in this novel. There’s politics and corporate corruption along with the usual prejudices/tensions. There’s humor that flowed naturally within in the story. The novel is told mostly through dialogue – in third person with few paragraphs and pages to spare for summaries and boring introspection. There wasn’t a slow middle and the dialogue rang true to me. Still though, this novel could have been tighter.
As for the star of this series, I really liked Nathan Active. He’s a young man between two worlds. He was raised by white parents who insisted that he keep in touch with his birth mother. However, Nathan harbors some resentment at being orphaned. It’s a sore spot. His mother was a teen when she gave birth to him. Nathan’s baggage is his struggle with his self-identity. He’s not very fluent in the Inupiat language. He can catch some of the words or meanings if it’s said slow enough for him to understand. Other than that, he’s an outsider. When the reader first meets him, he’s anxious to get transferred out of Chukchi to Anchorage. He isn’t interested in being a “real Eskimo” nor starting any type of romantic relationship. Right now he’s focused mainly on his career.
The criticisms of the story involve the many formatting errors I found somewhat distracting. The story was obviously good enough to ignore them but when I hit one it was jarring. I don’t think this is the author’s fault but the publisher is Soho Crime and the errors involved were words running together. I also highlighted the spelling error in a character’s name, not once but three to four times. Also there was the number “1″ used instead of the letter “I” in places and periods were often stuck in the wrong places too. I feel I must mention these if readers are interested in reading this story. I’d still strongly recommend this story regardless but be aware of the formatting snafus.
Back to the book, I thought it was going to end in the usual, conventional way with the hero facing off with the bad guys which leads to a shoot out. It did have some of those elements but not all. The loose ends were tied up. I must admit to not quite liking the resolution but that’s a small, personal thing.
The author’s voice was the main reason I enjoyed this story so much. The novel was nicely paced and the setting and the characters were memorable. My grade, A-. If you enjoy Colin Cotterill’s work then this author should work for you as well. As it has some of the same elements. Especially if you enjoy stories that are culturally rich in details and language. I learned a lot reading this book. The author offers up a glossary at the front of the book to help with the terms used in the story. At times I needed to look up a word or three and at other times, the meaning was intuitive enough to follow along. Anyway, excellent book.
Source: bought this book along with the rest of the series