1. The Wolf in the Whale by Jordanna Max Brodsky
"There is a very old story, rarely told, of a wolf that runs into the ocean and becomes a whale."
Born with the soul of a hunter and the spirit of the Wolf, Omat is destined to follow in her grandfather's footsteps-invoking the spirits of the land, sea, and sky to protect her people.
But the gods have stopped listening and Omat's family is starving. Alone at the edge of the world, hope is all they have left.
Desperate to save them, Omat journeys across the icy wastes, fighting for survival with every step. When she meets a Viking warrior and his strange new gods, they set in motion a conflict that could shatter her world...or save it.
The Wolf in the Whale is set in an alternative history where Vikings made landfall in Inuit territory. What follows is a fascinating clash and melding of cultures set in one of the most inhospitable places on earth.
Jordanna Max Brodsky has done her homework here and it really pays off. The sense of place in this novel is incredible. You feel the isolation and desolation of the far north in your gut but, like Omat, you can't help but love a place that is so uniquely and unapologetically itself. The contents of the book match the setting; this is not a kind or easy story. Omat's journey is arduous but their strength, resiliency, and determination to save their family keeps you invested through thick and thin.
There are graphic scenes in this book so I have included content warnings. If you would like to see them, please hover your curser over the book cover image. Be aware that they include spoilers for events in the book.
2. The Trees by Ali Shaw
There came an elastic aftershock of creaks and groans and then, softly softly, a chinking shower of rubbled cement. Leaves calmed and trunks stood serene. Where, not a minute before, there had been a suburb, there was now only woodland standing amid ruins…
There is no warning. No chance to prepare.
They arrive in the night: thundering up through the ground, transforming streets and towns into shadowy forest. Buildings are destroyed. Broken bodies, still wrapped in tattered bed linen, hang among the twitching leaves.
Adrien Thomas has never been much of a hero. But when he realises that no help is coming, he ventures out into this unrecognisable world. Michelle, his wife, is across the sea in Ireland and he has no way of knowing whether the trees have come for her too.
Then Adrien meets green-fingered Hannah and her teenage son Seb. Together, they set out to find Hannah’s forester brother, to reunite Adrien with his wife – and to discover just how deep the forest goes.
Their journey will take them to a place of terrible beauty and violence, to the dark heart of nature and the darkness inside themselves.
Look at that cover!! It's so cool! Do you need anything else? Yes, because we're not supposed to judge a book by its cover? Alright fine I'll do an actual review.
As strange as this is going to sound, The Trees is one of the most hopeful post-apocalyptic books I've read in a long time. That's not to say there aren't plenty of rough moments throughout the book. The world as we know it has collapsed and survivors find themselves threated by hunger, nature, and each other. Underneath the privation and violence however, The Trees is a deep exploration into the ways our love for others can drive us to persevere even in the darkest of times.
Also that cover though.
3. Breaking Wild by Diane Les Becquets
It is the last weekend of the season for Amy Raye Latour to get away. Driven to spend days alone in the wilderness, Amy Raye, mother of two, is compelled by the quiet and the rush of nature. But this time, her venture into a remote area presents a different set of dangers than Amy Raye has planned for and she finds herself on the verge of the precarious edge that she's flirted with her entire life.
When Amy Raye doesn't return to camp, ranger Pru Hathaway and her dog respond to the missing person's call. After an unexpected snowfall and few leads, the operation turns into a search and recovery. Pru, though, is not resigned to that. The more she learns about the woman for whom she is searching, and about Amy Raye's past, the more she suspects that Amy Raye might yet be alive. Pru's own search becomes an obsession for a woman whose life is just as mysterious as the clues she has left behind.
As the novel follows Amy Raye and Pru in alternating threads, Breaking Wild assumes the white-knuckled pace of a thriller laying bare Amy Raye's ultimate reckoning with the secrets of her life, and Pru's dogged pursuit of the woman who, against all odds, she believes she can find
Although slated as a thriller, Breaking Wild is, at its core, a book about two complex women finding peace and acceptance in the wild spaces around them. Amy Raye and Pru share a love for the healing power of isolation in the natural world and, although they are strangers to one another, this connection drives Pru to search for Amy Raye long after others have given up hope.
I loved this book because of the author's unflinching portrayal of all the ways life can kick you in the teeth and the main characters' unending perseverance in the face of adversity.
4. The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling
When Gyre Price lied her way into this expedition, she thought she’d be mapping mineral deposits, and that her biggest problems would be cave collapses and gear malfunctions. She also thought that the fat paycheck—enough to get her off-planet and on the trail of her mother—meant she’d get a skilled surface team, monitoring her suit and environment, keeping her safe. Keeping her sane.
Instead, she got Em.
Em sees nothing wrong with controlling Gyre’s body with drugs or withholding critical information to “ensure the smooth operation” of her expedition. Em knows all about Gyre’s falsified credentials, and has no qualms using them as a leash—and a lash. And Em has secrets, too . . .
As Gyre descends, little inconsistencies—missing supplies, unexpected changes in the route, and, worst of all, shifts in Em’s motivations—drive her out of her depths. Lost and disoriented, Gyre finds her sense of control giving way to paranoia and anger. On her own in this mysterious, deadly place, surrounded by darkness and the unknown, Gyre must overcome more than just the dangerous terrain and the Tunneler which calls underground its home if she wants to make it out alive—she must confront the ghosts in her own head.
But how come she can't shake the feeling she’s being followed?
You may recognize this book from my Top 10 Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books That You May Have Missed list. The Luminous Dead is making an appearence here as well because this book is all about survival. Surviving the elements, surviving a handler who thinks nothing of lying to you at every turn, and surviving that little voice inside that urges you to take just one more step out over the ledge.
The Luminous Dead is fantastically tense from page one. If you're at all a fan of unrealiable narrators, creative world building, or character driven books, give this one a shot.
5. The Book of M by Peng Shepherd
One afternoon at an outdoor market in India, a man’s shadow disappears—an occurrence science cannot explain. He is only the first. The phenomenon spreads like a plague, and while those afflicted gain a strange new power, it comes at a horrible price: the loss of all their memories.
Ory and his wife Max have escaped the Forgetting so far by hiding in an abandoned hotel deep in the woods. Their new life feels almost normal, until one day Max’s shadow disappears too.
Knowing that the more she forgets, the more dangerous she will become to Ory, Max runs away. But Ory refuses to give up the time they have left together. Desperate to find Max before her memory disappears completely, he follows her trail across a perilous, unrecognizable world, braving the threat of roaming bandits, the call to a new war being waged on the ruins of the capital, and the rise of a sinister cult that worships the shadowless.
As they journey, each searches for answers: for Ory, about love, about survival, about hope; and for Max, about a new force growing in the south that may hold the cure.
This is a strange one. As you may have guessed from the summary, The Book of M is an exploration of memory, identity, and the way those two forces influence one another. The book switches between Ory and Max's perspectives as the former struggles to define himself in a newly unrecognizable world, and the latter begins to lose her sense of identity altogether.
Who are we without the sense of self that comes from memory? Can we stay a community if we've forgotten everything that once tied us together? Is it entirely necessary for me to start musing like a philosophy professor? The Book of M posits some answers (not for that last one), but be prepared for them to be answers that leave you feeling just a little unsettled.
6. The Last by Hanna Jameson
Jon thought he had all the time in the world to respond to his wife’s text message: I miss you so much. I feel bad about how we left it. Love you. But as he’s waiting in the lobby of the L’Hotel Sixieme in Switzerland after an academic conference, still mulling over how to respond to his wife, he receives a string of horrifying push notifications. Washington, DC has been hit with a nuclear bomb, then New York, then London, and finally Berlin. That’s all he knows before news outlets and social media goes black—and before the clouds on the horizon turn orange.
Now, two months later, there are twenty survivors holed up at the hotel, a place already tainted by its strange history of suicides and murders. Those who can’t bear to stay commit suicide or wander off into the woods. Jon and the others try to maintain some semblance of civilization. But when the water pressure disappears, and Jon and a crew of survivors investigate the hotel’s water tanks, they are shocked to discover the body of a young girl.
As supplies dwindle and tensions rise, Jon becomes obsessed with investigating the death of the little girl as a way to cling to his own humanity. Yet the real question remains: can he afford to lose his mind in this hotel, or should he take his chances in the outside world?
My favorite trope in mystery novels is the closed circle of suspects. The Last, on top of being a great work of post-apocalyptic fiction, is a solid mystery that brings a new twist to the classic mystery set up. You see the murderer may be one of the 20 survivors attempting to scratch an existence out of their new post-nuclear world, but wouldn't it be simpler if it was someone who left the hotel before the bombs? Wouldn't it be easier if it wasn't one of us, Jon? Why are you borrowing trouble for a girl you can't save when we need to stick together to survive? You can't turn on us, Jon. The wolves are at the door.
The Last asks how much you're willing to forgive when survival is on the line. Do you band together no matter the sin? Or are there some lines that simply can't be crossed?
7. Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn
Decades after economic and environmental collapse destroys much of civilization in the United States, the Coast Road region isn’t just surviving but thriving by some accounts, building something new on the ruins of what came before. A culture of population control has developed in which people, organized into households, must earn the children they bear by proving they can take care of them and are awarded symbolic banners to demonstrate this privilege. In the meantime, birth control is mandatory.
Enid of Haven is an Investigator, called on to mediate disputes and examine transgressions against the community. She’s young for the job and hasn't yet handled a serious case. Now, though, a suspicious death requires her attention. The victim was an outcast, but might someone have taken dislike a step further and murdered him?
In a world defined by the disasters that happened a century before, the past is always present. But this investigation may reveal the cracks in Enid’s world and make her question what she really stands for.
Survival, mystery, and dystopian (or is it?) fiction all in one. One of the main reasons I loved Bannerless is because the Post-Apocalyptic world Carrie Vaughn has established isn't like anything I've read before. Unlike The Last, The Trees, or The Book of M, the world-altering crisis in Bannerless happened almost an entire generation before our protagonist was born. Society has, to a certain extent, been rebuilt. Citizens along the Coast Road aren't scrambling for food or shelter. They don't find themselves in danger of violence or privation. Civilization has returned. The problem with civilizations, of course, is that they're built by humans. And humans make mistakes.
Bannerless has excellent world building, is a compelling mystery, and raises questions about what it really means to live as part of a community.
8. The Wolves of Winter by Tyrell Johnson
Forget the old days. Forget summer. Forget warmth. Forget anything that doesn’t help you survive.
Lynn McBride has learned much since society collapsed in the face of nuclear war and the relentless spread of disease. As memories of her old life haunt her, she has been forced to forge ahead in the snow-covered Canadian Yukon, learning how to hunt and trap to survive.
But her fragile existence is about to be shattered. Shadows of the world before have found her tiny community—most prominently in the enigmatic figure of Jax, who sets in motion a chain of events that will force Lynn to fulfill a destiny she never imagined.
Anybody ready for a little bit of romance? Great. Now the romance is in the middle of the wilderness in the middle of the Canadian Yukon in the middle of nuclear winter. So. It is a VERY little bit of romance. Please don't expect things to get too steamy.
Although classified as adult, The Wolves of Winter is a great novel for fans of YA dystopian series like The Hunger Games or The Maze Runner. The protagonist, Lynn, is a no-nonsense, crossbow wielding survival machine whose only goal is to protecting her family from the threat of starvation and disease. That goal that is inevitably complicated by the arrival of a mysterious stranger from the outside world. It's a classic dystopian set up, but Tyrell Johnson keeps it novel with great world building and a fascinating biological threat. I highly recommend The Wolves of Winter for anyone looking for adventure or adrenaline fueled escapism.
9. To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey
In the winter of 1885, decorated war hero Colonel Allen Forrester leads a small band of men on an expedition that has been deemed impossible: to venture up the Wolverine River and pierce the vast, untamed Alaska Territory. Leaving behind Sophie, his newly pregnant wife, Colonel Forrester records his extraordinary experiences in hopes that his journal will reach her if he doesn't return—once he passes beyond the edge of the known world, there's no telling what awaits him.
The Wolverine River Valley is not only breathtaking and forbidding but also terrifying in ways that the colonel and his men never could have imagined. As they map the territory and gather information on the native tribes, whose understanding of the natural world is unlike anything they have ever encountered, Forrester and his men discover the blurred lines between human and wild animal, the living and the dead. And while the men knew they would face starvation and danger, they cannot escape the sense that some greater, mysterious force threatens their lives.
Meanwhile, on her own at Vancouver Barracks, Sophie chafes under the social restrictions and yearns to travel alongside her husband. She does not know that the winter will require as much of her as it does her husband, that both her courage and faith will be tested to the breaking point. Can her exploration of nature through the new art of photography help her to rediscover her sense of beauty and wonder?
The truths that Allen and Sophie discover over the course of that fateful year change both of their lives—and the lives of those who hear their stories long after they're gone—forever.
Although Eowyn Ivey is a very well-known author, I feel that To the Bright Edge of the World is one of her most often overlooked works (that's my justification for putting it on a 'you might have missed list' anyway). What can I say other than this a truly beautiful and heart wrenching work of fiction? Eowyn Ivey is clearly an author in love with the natural world, and those feelings of appreciation and awe absolutely shine through. Now, do you occasionally want to shake Allen Forrester and say 'hey why don't you listen to the people who actually live in the area you're exploring and maybe you'll get in less trouble since they know way more about this land than you do'? One THOUSAND percent, yes. I suppose if he followed that advice it would be a much less eventful book though.
If you're ready to sink into something both transporting and absorbing, give To the Bright Edge of the World a shot. Be warned, it will make you want to travel to Alaska (now that they have electricity and heating).
10. Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown
The year is 1819, and the renowned chef Owen Wedgwood has been kidnapped by the ruthless pirate Mad Hannah Mabbot. He will be spared, she tells him, as long as he puts exquisite food in front of her every Sunday without fail.
To appease the red-haired captain, Wedgwood gets cracking with the meager supplies on board. His first triumph at sea is actual bread, made from a sourdough starter that he leavens in a tin under his shirt throughout a roaring battle, as men are cutlassed all around him. Soon he's making tea-smoked eel and brewing pineapple-banana cider.
But Mabbot—who exerts a curious draw on the chef—is under siege. Hunted by a deadly privateer and plagued by a saboteur hidden on her ship, she pushes her crew past exhaustion in her search for the notorious Brass Fox. As Wedgwood begins to sense a method to Mabbot's madness, he must rely on the bizarre crewmembers he once feared: Mr. Apples, the fearsome giant who loves to knit; Feng and Bai, martial arts masters sworn to defend their captain; and Joshua, the deaf cabin boy who becomes the son Wedgwood never had.
Cinnamon and Gunpowder is a swashbuckling epicure's adventure simmered over a surprisingly touching love story—with a dash of the strangest, most delightful cookbook never written. Eli Brown has crafted a uniquely entertaining novel full of adventure: the Scheherazade story turned on its head, at sea, with food.
Cinnamon and Gunpowder is One Thousand and One Nights with pirates and food porn. What's not to love?
Oh man do I wish there was a cookbook that came with this. Eli Brown writes so lovingly about the importance of food, cooking, and breaking bread that you're immediately inspired to plan a dinner party and break out the pots and pans. Or, if you have the same culinary skills I do, order takeout and facetime your bros. I don't want anyone to leave thinking this book is just an ode to all things epicurean though. Wrapped around detailed descriptions of meals is the story of a man ripped out of his element and forced to confront both his past and his assumptions about the world around him.