The Shapeshifters by Stefan Spjut

the shapeshiftersWeirdly wonderful…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In 1978, a small boy and his mother are staying in a holiday cabin in the forests near Falun, in Sweden. All seems well until the mother accidentally kills a bat that was flying around her. She throws it into the undergrowth, but the next day, when she goes to the fridge, there is the dead bat lying crumpled on a shelf. Now some of the forest animals begin to behave strangely, sitting motionless staring at the house. The mother tells the boy to stay in but he wants to see them, so he runs out of the house into the forest – and is never seen again. His distraught mother claims that she saw him being taken by a giant…

In the present day, Susso visits an elderly woman who claims she has seen a strange little man watching her house and her grandson. Susso believes in trolls and is on a personal mission to prove that they still exist. Most of the reports she receives via her website are obviously false or hoaxes, but something about this woman convinces her to investigate further. Elsewhere, Seved is busily clearing up the havoc caused by the Old Ones who live in the barn – a sure sign they are getting restless…

Scandinavian Fairy Tale illustration by Theodore Kittlesen 1857-1914
Scandinavian Fairy Tale illustration by Theodore Kittlesen 1857-1914

This is one of the weirdest books I’ve read in a long time – weirdly wonderful, that is. The world it is set in is undeniably the Sweden of today, but in some isolated places the creatures of myth and folklore still exist. It’s essential that the reader can accept this, because there’s no ambiguity about it, but Spjut’s matter-of-fact way of writing about them somehow makes the whole thing feel completely credible. But although their existence is established he leaves them beautifully undefined – the reader is never quite sure what exactly they are or whether they are fundamentally good or evil or perhaps, like humanity, a bit of both. They’re not all the same, either in appearance or behaviour, and there seems to be a kind of hierarchy amongst them. Although most humans remain unaware of them, some are very closely involved with them. And every now and then, a child goes missing.

Scandinavian Fairy Tale illustration by Theodore Kittlesen 1857-1914
Scandinavian Fairy Tale illustration by Theodore Kittlesen 1857-1914

It’s the writing that makes it work. Spjut builds up a chilling atmosphere, largely by never quite telling the reader exactly what’s going on. Normally that would frustrate me wildly, but it works here because the reader is put in the same position of uncertainty as the humans. There’s a folk-tale feel about the whole thing as if the fables of the old days have somehow strayed back into the real world. But despite that, fundamentally this is a crime novel with all the usual elements of an investigation into a missing child. As with so much Nordic fiction, the weather and landscape plays a huge role in creating an atmosphere of isolation – all those trees, and the snow, and the freezing cold.

Stefan Spjut
Stefan Spjut

There’s a real air of horror running beneath the surface, though in fact there’s not too much in the way of explicit gruesomeness – it’s more the fear of not knowing what might happen. The beginning is decidedly creepy and sets up the tone for the rest of the book brilliantly. It takes a while to get to grips with who everyone is and how the various strands link, but gradually it all comes together. I admit there were bits in the middle that dragged slightly and felt a little repetitive at times, but the bulk of it kept me totally absorbed. And the last part is full of action building up to a really great ending that satisfies even though everything is far from being tied up neatly and tidily. So much is left unexplained, not in the way of careless loose ends, but more as if some things just are as they are and must be accepted.

If you can cope with the basic idea, then I highly recommend this as something very different from the normal run of things. 4 stars for the writing, plus one for being one of the most original books I’ve read in a while – I do hope there’s going to be a sequel…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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61 thoughts on “The Shapeshifters by Stefan Spjut

  1. This sounds great, I am perfectly happy to accept that folklore and such exists if the writing is good enough. I could certainly welcome a little extra weirdness in my world right now.

  2. Hmmm…I suppose that’s the essential question isn’t it, Fiction Fan? Can the reader send her or his disbelief out for an ice cream before reading this? I generally like to keep my disbelief right with me, so for me, I’d have to really work to accept those folklore elements. Still, good writing always gets Margot-points. And it’s not easy to create suspense and even horror without gore, so I give credit to any author who can do that.

    • Generally I’m the same, Margot, and was really quite surprised that he managed to get past my defences. I think it’s because there’s not a lot of hoohah and spooky music about the trolls – they just exist. It’s a very matter of fact approach that oddly makes it work.

  3. Well, you know my TBR list is growing by the week, but this one does sound intriguing! I’ve always been fond of fairy tales and folklore; working them into a novel today can be challenging, as so many schools don’t delve into them the way they once did. As a writer, I think I’d find it interesting to see how this blue-hatted fellow wove a story like this!

    • I was surprised that this didn’t set off all my defence mechanisms – generally speaking, the idea of folklore creatures in a modern setting would put me right off. But somehow the Nordic setting with all those snowy forests made it work – along with the way he just made it all seem so matter of fact.

  4. Might have to give this one a go. As a regular fantasy reader, I have trained my disbelief to vacate the premises on command!

    • I wonder what you’d think of it. I suspect it’s one of those ones that either works for you or doesn’t. Definitely different from the usual run of things – trolls seem preferable to maverick drunken detectives somehow…

  5. This one does sound interesting, despite it’s being from “over there” ( ha, ha, you know what I mean!).

  6. Stellar review, FEF! Has me interested already, to be honest. I like the feel. And I like that she killed a bat! How’s she do it, I wonder?

    Bet you have trouble pronouncing the last name, huh? But look at that blue hat!

  7. Sounds fantastic! I love books that incorporate folklore, and the fact that it incorporates well-written horror–without descending into the explicitly gruesome–sounds really interesting and enjoyable. 🙂

    • I think it might well be one you’d like, honya! Apart from a little dip in the middle, I was totally absorbed by it – really cleverly done the way he made it so believable. If you get a chance to read it, I hope you enjoy it. 🙂

  8. Hmmm. Weirdly wonderful. Love it! This sounds like someone is taking adult fiction in the direction of children’s literature where one builds a credible world that becomes the new reality. If you do it well, they will go with it completely. I just attended a conference where one of the breakout sessions was on sagging middles. Sadly, I needed to attend another during that time slot. So I must beware of sagging middles in my future. Hmmm, (looks down at my current sagging middle). Perhaps it’s too late.

    • Yay! You’re back! LF and I were just about to send out the dogs…

      Yes, I did wonder after I’d posted the review if the beautifully undefined feeling might be accidental – perhaps in Sweden trolls and shapeshifters are so much part of the culture he just didn’t feel the need to define them. Either way, still weirdly wonderful! Haha! Yes, my own middle could do with a strong edit too… 😉

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