Sacrifice by S.J. Bolton

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I’d signed up for Transworld’s Great Crime Caper reading challenge. Sacrifice, the debut novel by S.J. Bolton, is the first book I received from Transworld for the challenge.

Our narrator is Tora Hamilton, an obstetric surgeon who has recently moved to the Shetland Islands with her husband, Duncan. Tora has been told that the Shetlands are ‘one of the safest places to live in the UK’, so the last thing she expects is to find a dead body in a peat bog in the field beside her new home. To make things even more shocking the body has had the heart removed and is carved with symbols which match the ancient runes on the wall in Tora’s cellar. As Tora becomes more and more determined to find out what’s going on she discovers that someone else is equally determined to put an end to her investigations.

If you’re going to read this book you should be aware that it’s very gory in places, particularly at the beginning of the novel, when Tora finds the mutilated corpse. If you can get through this part you’ll be all right because the story then becomes much less gruesome, though increasingly dark and eerie, and soon develops into a fascinating and well-structured murder mystery. Tora, with the help of police detectives Dana and Helen, uses a whole range of resources to investigate the mystery and piece information together, from medical records and birth registers to bank statements and books of folklore.

The most interesting aspect of this book for me was the Shetland setting and the exploration of Shetland myths and legends. I’ve never been to the Shetlands and have never read a book set there either, so this was something new for me, and I thought S.J. Bolton perfectly evoked the atmosphere of these remote and ruggedly beautiful islands with their jagged cliffs, flooded valleys and the Aurora Borealis illuminating the night sky.

Although the Shetlands are part of Scotland they are deeply rooted in Norse history and folklore and some of these myths and legends become integral to the story, giving it a slightly supernatural aura. There’s a scene where Tora is reading about a particular myth for the first time which really sent shivers down my spine. In fact, the whole book is genuinely quite scary. There are a few chapters that you really wouldn’t want to read if you were alone in the house at night!

On a more negative note, sometimes I felt I was being given too much information all at once when it could probably have been woven into the plot more gradually. A lot of it was also hard to believe. Tora seemed unrealistically brave, taking needless risks and sneaking around murder scenes in the middle of the night. Of course, fiction doesn’t always need to be realistic and it wouldn’t have been much of a story if Tora had reacted the way I would have done and run a mile at the first sign of danger! And none of this really mattered to me anyway because the plot was so exciting and gripping.

Sacrifice was just what I needed after reading a lot of slower paced books recently. Perfect if you’re looking for a fast-moving, atmospheric mystery with a unique setting.