“A Fatal Thaw”, the second Kate Shugak book, is a substantial improvement on the first: the plot is more complicated, the characterization is stronger, the descriptions of Alaska and its people are sharp, vivid and memorable. This was the book that made me eager to read the rest of the series.
Dana Stabenow makes Alaska a character in her books. In ” A Fatal Flaw” we experience the ferocious beauty of Alaska’s mountains via an avalanche that Dana Stabenow makes frighteningly real.
The plot of the book provides a vehicle for exploring life in a very small bush town. Kate has to dig through the things people would like to keep secret, the histories they hide, the passions they disguise, the failings that are usually politely ignored unless someone turns up dead.
The spree-killer at the start of the book, who goes from homestead to homestead, shooting everyone he can find, pulls out a darker aspect of Alaska, which is famous for attracting the strange loners. The way Kate and Mutt bring him down is also a lesson in Alaska. Here you can’t wait for the police to arrive. You have to act, and it you’re Kate Shugak, you have to do more than protect yourself, you have to stop the killing. If you’re Mutt, you have to do whatever it takes to keep Kate safe.
What really lifted the book above the norm for me was finding out more about Kate. It becomes clear that Kate is hiding out on her homestead, isolating herself so that she can get through life one day at a time after the trauma she’s been through. It’s equally clear that her former boss and many members of her community expect more of her. No-one is in the least surprised that it is Kate who takes down the killer at the beginning of the book and no-one objects when she is asked to investigate further.
Kate engages in the investigation reluctantly. It doesn’t fill her with the joy of the hunt. . She understands and empathises with the weaknesses of the people around her and is mindful of their privacy. She is not motivated by enforcing the law. She acts to bring a natural justice that will restore people’s ability to live as neighbours and to live with themselves.
By the end of novel, it’s clear that Kate has started slowly to re-engage with the world, her culture and her community. Dana Stabenow captures this through a memorable and moving account of Kate at a Potlatch for the dead where she dances with an Elder and begins her own emotional thaw.