As White as Snow, the second volume in Salla Simukka’s Snow White trilogy, was originally released in fall 2013 under the title Valkea kuin lumi; the English translation hit virtual bookshelves on March 3rd of this year (2015). It is a great compliment to the first book in the trilogy, As Red as Blood, that I hurried to buy the second book as soon as it was available.
In the first book in the series, our protagonist, seventeen-year-old art student Lumikki Andersson, barely survived inadvertently crossing a powerful criminal organization. In the second book, she decides to enjoy a peaceful, solitary holiday in Prague, far from her native Finland. No more mysteries, no more gangsters, no more brushes with death, just the sights and sounds of a fantastic city and maybe some bittersweet memories of a romance that ended all too abruptly.
At least that was the plan, up to the point at which Lumikki’s sister Lenka unexpectedly pops up in Prague for a chat with Lumikki. This is surprising for two reasons: 1) Lumikki believes that her entire family is back in Scandinavia, and 2) Lumikki is, as far as she knows, an only child.
Lenka’s story, that she was the product of an ill-fated affair between Lumikki’s father and Lenka’s mother sounds plausible enough. It even seems, at least on first glance, to tie into certain nearly-forgotten memories that come to Lumikki in dreams. Lumikki’s no sap, however, and she does do some quiet checking to make sure that Lenka’s not just spinning a wild tale. To Lumikki’s surprise, the story seems to check out. Her father was in Prague at the right time and he’s oddly reticent about his experiences in that city.
A new half-sister would be enough to deal with but there’s more. Lenka was orphaned at fifteen when her mother drowned. Fortunately for her, Lenka was almost immediately taken in by her mother’s former co-coreligionists. Somewhat less fortunately, the religious community from which Lenka’s mother had become estranged is, as Lumikki realizes as soon as she gets a look at the Holy White Family, a cult with all the earmarks of being a cult par excellence, the Platonic ideal of an extreme cult.
Chance allows Lumikki to correlate two bits of information: when an upset Lenka reports that fellow cult member Jaro has been killed in a hit-and-run, Lumikki realizes that she saw Jaro twice: once at the run-down house where the Family lives and once in a cafe, talking to a man Lumikki believes is a reporter. Jaro dying almost immediately after talking to the press seems less like a coincidence and more like someone tying up a loose end. Because Lenka is tangled in whatever is going on in the Family, Lumikki begins to dig.
What she learns is that Lenka’s cult is even worse than Lumikki at first feared. Judging by the fact that a hit-man begins dogging Lenka’s heels as soon as she begins investigating, someone with the right connections to hire an assassin really, really doesn’t want Lumikki to continue with her investigation.
We learn a lot more about Lumikki’s doomed summer romance in this book than we did in the first. One of the things we learn is that the Finns are apparently a lot more open-minded about sexual content in juvenile mysteries than are North Americans. Lumikki’s reminiscences are not at all salacious but they are somewhat explicit for a seventeen-year-old protagonist in a young adult novel. I expect that as soon as parents discover that Lumikki’s ex-lover Blaze is transgendered, there will be a sales-boosting outcry from the more conservative parents.
I have to say that the explanation for what the cult leader and his ally were up to raised my eyebrow; the plan seemed to require more time (more than a decade) than the payoff seems worth. Perhaps the experience of being the leader of a community of fanatics is enough of an interim payoff.
Once again I am reminded that in a novel like this I would be dead meat. Lumikki faces death a number of times and her athleticism (combined with quick thinking, also not a forte of mine) is her main defense. As cathartic as having Lumikki beat her stalker into a pulp would be, he’s armed and she isn’t. Lumikki is sensible enough to run away, at which she is very good . The whole experience is very frustrating for her would-be killer, who might perhaps have succeeded in his murderous plans if Lumikki had stuck around to try kickboxing her attacker.
The novel depends on a coincidence — the fact that Lumikki saw Juro at the Family home and in a cafe talking to a reporter — to kick the plot into high gear. While coincidences do happen, this one felt a little forced . This may be due to the brevity of the novel, which may be a nod to the intended audience (younger readers). Had the author been allowed more pages, she might have found a way for Lumikki to connect the dots more organically.
The translation is competent enough but I was kicked out of the book whenever the text used American units. Aside from Liberia, Burma, and the US , the Imperial system of measurements (and the American version, which gets various elements of Imperial just a little wrong) is as dead as cyberpunk; there’s no way Lumikki would think of temperature in Fahrenheit. It was as jarring as if some helpful editor helpfully switched which side of the road a British protagonist was driving on, so as not to alienate American readers.
Brevity and minor details of translation aside, the book held my interest and left me curious to see how Simukka turns what is so far two series books into one unified trilogy. Unfortunately for me, the final book, As Black as Ebony, is not due out until August.
1: That may not sound like much of an achievement, but As Red as Blood’s plot was kicked off by Natalia Smirnova’s attempt to do just that; Natalia was facedown in the snow before she realized she had failed.
2: Although nothing on the scale of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel.
3: I find it amusing that Canada converted from Imperial to metric because at the time it appeared the US was going to adopt metric and we didn’t want trade disrupted by a difference in measuring systems. Given that it took us two generations to pick a design for our flag, a century to settle on lyrics for the national anthem, and one hundred and fifteen years, give or take, to repatriate the constitution you wouldn’t think it was possible for Canada to reform something so basic (and potentially contentious) as Imperial versus metric, but apparently greed is an effective motivation.