Daniel’s Reviews: The Lost Village by Camilla Sten

Daniel Haeusser reviews short works of SFT that appear both online and in print. He is an Assistant Professor in the Biology Department at Canisius College, where he teaches microbiology and leads student research projects with bacteria and bacteriophage. He’s also an associate blogger with the American Society for Microbiology’s popular Small Things Considered. Daniel reads broadly in English and French, and his book reviews can be found at Reading1000Lives or Skiffy & Fanty. You can also connect with him on Goodreads or Twitter.

Alice Lindstedt has grown up captivated by the mystery of Silvertjarn, an abandoned mining town whose population of just under 900 people vanished suddenly without a trace in 1959. With no signs of struggle or disaster, the town was discovered eerily pristine, devoid of any human save for the body of woman in the town square, stoned to death, and a sole survivor, a crying newborn tucked away in the school. Over the decades it rested empty, gradually falling to the elements and birthing stories of curses and ghosts from any who have dared enter its limits.

Yet, Silvertjarn exists for Alice as more than a macabre oddity, moret than a source for conspiracy theories and folk tales. Her family has personal history in the village. Alice’s grandmother was born there, but left the tight-knit community for the larger world beyond, her parents and younger sister Aina remaining in Silvertjarn, ultimately to number among the victims of the unknown calamity that befell the population. Letters from Aina through the months leading up to the strage disappearance provide Alice with fragmentary hints of troubles and looming disaster, but Alice has decided the only way to really solve the mystery of this lost village is to go there and search.

As an aspiring documentary filmmaker, Alice assembles a crew to journey to Silvertjarn and spend six days filming in its ruins, exploring answers to the questions of what happened, and what was responsible. Going with her are her friend Tone (who unknowingly also has connections to the mysterious village), her former friend Emmy (an experienced film producer), Emmy’s boyfriend Robert (film technician), and Max (the financial backer for the endeavor.)

In chapters alternating between the events of the past and the present-day exploration of the city, readers discover the truth behind the mystery of Silvertjarn and witness the psychological and physical fractures that can build in a community, whether a population of hundreds, or a small group of film makers.

Both the original title of the novel in Swedish (Staden, literally “The City”) or the title for its English translation by Alexandra Fleming (The Lost Village) highlight the fact that the setting of this novel is foundational to the story, existing almost like a character unto itself. And that setting also represents the greatest strength and success of Sten’s novel. As the plot summary above hopefully conveys, The Lost Village exudes a dark and chilling atmosphere throughout, a mixture of historic Nordic noir and gothic horror. The plot moves forward at a slow creep of dread, but when the action ultimately lets loose Sten releases the horror and terror and gore.

Unfortunately, these successes of The Lost Village are unable to compensate or overcome its flaws. The characters fit into rigid types, showing little growth, and in the case of the modern area, welcome little reader connection or empathy. Now, character growth isn’t necessarily always required, particularly in the realms of genre fiction where emphasis may lie elsewhere. However, the rigid characters here don’t interact in any meaningful way to reveal anything of note or surprising to the reader. They exist as they are, they clash for the point of plot alone, and they predictably fall in relation to one another and their type.

One notable theme that the novel tries to explore through the pair of its female protagonists in both the modern and past age is that of mental illness. While it may be portrayed realistically, the novel novel does not go far enough in bringing that theme of mental illness beyond the cliché, or to really offer any profound insight beyond what any story harboring a character with that trait may do. Again, like with the plot and atmosphere to The Lost Village, great intention and profound opportunity here, but failed execution.

The other major flaw in the novel from my perspective is in its ending and its failure to either embrace the supernatural or straddle the line between conventional and fantasy. I do not consider the choice of offering a 100% conventional explanation for the disappearances of the population of Silvertjarn to be a mistake a priori. It’s not my preferred type of fictional tale, but it’s certainly valid and can be done well. The grave mistake here is that Sten invokes a conventional explanation to the mystery that stretches the imagination and credulity well beyond what a supernatural one would have. Sten seems to want to make a cookie-cutter kind of thriller here, while teasing supernatural horror elements, and giving an obligatory twist that ends up being the literary equivalent of M. Night Shymalan’s worst in film.

The Lost Village is a novel with fantastic inspiration and a strongly atmospheric foundation that loses itself in the choices of its execution, from the development of its characters, and their inane actions/choices, to its embracing of suspense mediocrity, with absurdities thrown in to achieve some twists. By no means is it a bad novel, it’s just not particularly special. It certainly didn’t live up to my expectations from its plot summary or marketing comparisons (the latter which are outright falsehoods.)

I expected this novel to fit into the ‘speculative’ realm more, with actual paranormal elements or at least more open-endedness in terms of what about the mystery of Silvertjarn was supernatural or conventional in explanation. For me (and probably other fans of fantasy, horror, or magic-realism) the choice to give The Lost Village an unabashedly conventional answer (and one with the intelligence and logic of a Scooby Doo cartoon episode at that) was a major let-down.

However, readers who simply adore dark thrillers whether simple, complex, or in-between will likely still love The Lost Village. I noticed one reviewer comparing the novel to a B movie, and that’s not far off. If you love suspense and don’t mind it stretching credulity, this is an engaging and quick read with some fantastic atmosphere. Those more partial to horror and speculative fiction, be more wary.

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