Originally published in 2021
When Milla accepts an off-season invitation to Le Rocher, a cozy ski resort in the French Alps, she’s expecting an intimate weekend of catching up with four old friends. It might have been a decade since she saw them last, but she’s never forgotten the bond they forged on this very mountain during a winter spent fiercely training for an elite snowboarding competition.
Yet no sooner do Milla and the others arrive for the reunion than they realize something is horribly wrong. The resort is deserted. The cable cars that delivered them to the mountaintop have stopped working. Their cell phones–missing. And inside the hotel, detailed instructions await them: an icebreaker game, designed to draw out their secrets. A game meant to remind them of Saskia, the enigmatic sixth member of their group, who vanished the morning of the competition years before and has long been presumed dead.
Stranded in the resort, Milla’s not sure what’s worse: the increasingly sinister things happening around her or the looming snowstorm that’s making escape even more impossible. All she knows is that there’s no one on the mountain she can trust. Because someone has gathered them there to find out the truth about Saskia…someone who will stop at nothing to get answers. And if Milla’s not careful, she could be the next to disappear…
A couple of months ago I pledged that I would be devoting my Monday reviews in April, May and June to writing about locked room and impossible crime stories. Some of you may have already noticed however in the way this post has been categorized that I haven’t applied that label to this book. That is because when I acquired this book it was on the basis of a number of reviews and a statement at the top of the Amazon listing describing it as a ‘propulsive locked room debut’. Unfortunately while it may be propulsive and it is the author’s debut novel, it simply isn’t a locked room mystery but rather a closed circle mystery.
I’m not holding that against the book and want to put that misleading marketing to one side. Authors are rarely responsible for the blurbs and this is hardly the only novel in recent years to be mismarketed in this way. I think the book deserves to be discussed on its own merits and have endeavored to do so below.
And for those who may regret that this isn’t a locked room review I’ll try to squeeze an extra one in during the next few weeks to make up for it!
Shiver begins with the reunion of a group of retired snowboarders at a resort in the French Alps during the off-season. Ten years earlier they had become close while training and preparing for a big competition but that winter ended in tragedy when Saskia disappeared on the day of the big competition, never to be seen or heard from again. A lengthy court battle had followed and shortly before the reunion takes place Saskia had finally been declared dead though her body had never been found.
It quickly becomes clear though that something is wrong. When the group disembarks the cable cars they find that the resort is deserted and no one will admit to having been the one to send the invitations. Then during an icebreaker game that has been set out in which the group are supposed to trade secrets things take a sinister turn. Among the statements read out are that one person killed Saskia and another knows where she is. When they realize that they are stranded and that their cellphones have disappeared, leaving them with no way to contact the outside world, they begin to suspect that they have been gathered with a more sinister purpose in mind.
Reynolds tells her story from the perspective of Milla, one of that group, who lets us know that she has a secret about what happened with Saskia that no one in the group knows. After establishing what is happening at the resort (and making it clear that Milla neither considers herself to be the killer or the person who knows where the body is), the novel alternates chapters set in the present with those set ten years earlier, allowing us to slowly build up a picture of what actually took place all those years ago. This technique works pretty well as both timelines offer points of interest in terms of plot and character.
The historical chapters are set in the period before the disappearance took place. What that means is that the reader will not be given evidence of what has happened but will be encouraged to look for clues as to what is about to take place. These chapters also help build our understanding of the origin of the tensions that exist within the group years later and give us a better understanding of who Saskia was as a person. While she and all of the group are strong personalities, I felt each were believable.
These chapters are rich in discussion of what it is like to be a snowboarder and to be in a community of aspiring athletes. That world is quite foreign to me but I think Reynolds brings it to life quite effectively and helped me understand what it would feel like to compete and why, given how few snowboarders can support themselves exclusively through the sport, these characters would have pursued it. We also get to see how passions run high on occasion, fuelled by adrenaline and a sense of competition, leading to rivalries and romantic tensions within the group.
The modern day chapters read more like a thriller, as the group slowly grow to suspect one another. I would place an emphasis on the word ‘slowly’ – those expecting things to quickly descend into a bloodbath will be disappointed. While the murder teased in the book’s tagline does eventually take place, you will get through a lot of the book before you encounter a body. Instead the intention is to build a sense of tension, isolation and distrust.
It is partially successful. The portrayal of distrust within the group is certainly there are quite effective, as is the sense of isolation and the hostility of the environment around them. Reynolds quickly and convincingly establishes reasons why the characters can’t just snowboard their way to safety down the mountain and there are a few ominous suggestions that seem to point at excitement to come. Unfortunately I just didn’t feel the sense that tension was mounting, at least in the first half of the novel – after the initial disconcerting idea of the icebreaker game and their realization about being stranded, I didn’t feel like the level of danger was increasing – simply that characters were sounding each other out.
The second half of the novel is a different story as things seem to accelerate and we get some more direct evidence of the peril the characters face. A few of those moments are quite outlandish but generally in an entertaining way and I think that the book would have benefitted by embracing those elements a little earlier. My favorite of these, which I cannot describe without spoiling it, comes at the start of Chapter 57.
Reynolds has a lot to resolve at the end of the book, needing to explain both what happened to Saskia ten years earlier and who is orchestrating the events at the abandoned ski resort. I think she manages to pull together a convincing and satisfying explanation, at least for the circumstances surrounding Saskia’s fate. I was a little disappointed however when it came to the resolution to events in the present day – at least in terms of the resolution of the mystery elements.
The problem is perhaps one of my own expectations. I had unfortunately made a guess as to the villain’s identity at the start of the novel, long before I had any idea of why they would want to have done it. While I appreciated the development of their motives the ending did not surprise me at all, nor did I feel that it was really clued.
This is a particular shame as the events that follow their reveal are great. Reynolds delivers an exciting, tense conclusion that kept me engaged to the final page wanting to know what had happened.
While I may have been disappointed with the novel as a puzzle, I think it works pretty well as a thriller. I think the alpine setting and snowboarding details are incorporated well and that the characters each felt pretty distinct and credible (at least in the historical timeline). In particular, I felt that the rivalry between Milla and Saskia was developed in some thoughtful and interesting ways and that for me was the most successful aspect of the novel.
The Verdict: The alpine setting is effective and the rivalry between Milla and Saskia intrigued me. Read this as a thriller rather than a puzzle you can solve and you may well enjoy it.