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The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

Dark fantasy novella combines horror with history

Photo courtesy of PS Publishing
On The Shoulder of Otava is one of three projects launching Absinth Books, a new novella imprint of U.K. horror/fantasy publisher PS Publishing.

campus editor/photographer

You’re almost guaranteed to feel a chill reading “On The Shoulders of Otava,” the latest novella from British dark fantasy author Laura Mauro.

Set during the Finnish Civil War, the story treads along with a heavy crunch of snow beneath its feet. Ice covers everything. Characters brave the wartime cold, they suffer frostbite, they go snow-blind.

You might feel your own fingers go numb around the page.
But if the cold doesn’t get to you, the novella’s quiet, lurking terror will.

Siiri Tuokkola is a soldier in an all-female unit of the Red Guard, an ill-equipped paramilitary force fighting against the enemy White Guard.

During a march towards an occupied city, a male superior commands the women’s unit to reroute to a nearby village — the trenches are no place for a woman, he says.

Siiri and three of her comrades refuse. They follow after the departed men, but when a blizzard strikes and they’re forced to seek refuge in the nearby woods, they find themselves stalked by a strange force.

Mauro — who recently won the British Fantasy Award for her collection “Sing Your Sadness Deep” — has a gift for blurring the lines between reality and fantasy.

She does an excellent job at building a world that feels lived-in and harsh in its own right and then raising the stakes with the supernatural.

Mauro is aware that the average reader might not be familiar with the Finnish history and mythology that ties the story together.

These elements form the backbone of the novella, but they’re whittled down only to what matters in the context of Siiri’s experience directly.

Siiri shines best when she’s playing off the compelling group of women that surround her, from the brash and violent Ester to the soft-spoken Elina.

Elina is prone to telling stories at night and through her, we’re introduced to mysterious beings that later manifest into Siiri’s reality.

The fantasy element present in the novel might be hit-or-miss for readers.

Mauro tends to leave things vague, but she always provides a fully fleshed out arc for the ambiguity to live in. There’s a strong emotional through-line that follows whatever Siiri may or may not be experiencing as the world around her begins to unravel.

All of this is held together with vivid but compulsively readable prose. Whether describing a sky that “glares down through the sparse canopy like an enormous, malevolent eye” or a churchyard full of “crumstill bling gravestones like ruined teeth,” every scene runs deep with time and place while giving ample room for character.

Readers will almost certainly feel compelled to learn more about the Finnish Civil War and its Red Guard, something Mauro encourages in an afterword.

“The Women’s Guard were very real,” she writes. “It is thought that around 2000 women served as members, many of them seeing action at the height of the war.”

There are enough ideas here to have warranted a full-length novel, but for the trim 78 pages we’re given, “On The Shoulders of Otava” is an ethereal, haunting look at a little-known time and place in history.


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