Barbara Nickless – ‘At First Light (Dr. Evan Wilding #1)’

A thriller steeped in Viking folklore, At First Light by Barbara Nickless seeks to draw you deeper into a ritualistic murder mystery from the very first pages.

But will the ancient folklore draw you in or leave you looking for a nap?

Let’s find out! But first…

The Details

At First Light (Dr. Evan Wilding #1) is written by Barbara Nickless and is book one of the Dr. Evan Wilding Series.

I received an advanced copy of this book as an Amazon Prime First Reads book and it’s set to hit shelves near you December 1st, 2021.

At First Light is published by Thomas & Mercer, the mystery-thriller-and true crime wing of Amazon Publishing.

The Summary

Photo courtesy of Goodreads

From Goodreads:

“On the muddy banks of the Calumet River, a body has been found posed next to a series of mysterious glyphs and bearing wounds from a ritualistic slaying. Chicago detective Addie Bisset knows only one man who can decipher the message left by the killer: her friend Dr. Evan Wilding. A brilliant forensic semiotician, Evan decodes the etchings as Viking Age runes. They suggest either human sacrifice or righteous punishment. But to what god? And for what sins?

Only one thing is clear from the disturbing runic riddles: there are more victims to come.

As Evan races to determine the identity of the Viking Poet, he and Addie uncover the killer’s most terrifying secret yet: the motive. This startling discovery puts Evan’s life in mortal danger, and verse by ancient verse, time is running out.”

The Good

I wasn’t really sure I was going to enjoy this book. Murder/Mystery Thrillers aren’t my USUAL thing. But the added layer of the ritualistic killings steeped in Viking Folklore and Mythology was enough to get me to bite.

I’m glad I did.

I can’t quite put my finger on why exactly, but I really enjoyed the ride through this story. Full of interesting characters, be it Dr. Evan Wilding himself, Addie, or even Diana, this book sucked me in with the Viking themed murders and held me there with characters that I greatly enjoyed.

Yes, even the often teased and hinted potential for romance(which is ALSO not one of my usual genres I enjoy).

The cold, gritty setting of an early winter in Chicago reminded me a lot of the harsh late fall weather here in Northern Minnesota. This was only compounded by the fact I read most of it while sitting out in the snow and wind and frigid temps of a hunting season, the story my only companion to the harsh elements I was enduring at the time.

Nickless has a wonderful way of phrasing things that just seems to sing, almost in honor of the ancient prose in Beowulf, which the story references quite a bit. Her phrasing had a poetic and lyrical quality at times that was very enjoyable and often caused me to pause to appreciate and think over an idea she’s presented, such as this line:

But the dark pressed close against the windows as the world kept watch.

Nickless, Barbara. At First Light (Dr. Evan Wilding) (p. 150). Thomas & Mercer. Kindle Edition.

And this line as well:

It’s not superstition I’m talking about. It’s wisdom. The lore of the ancients.”

Nickless, Barbara. At First Light (Dr. Evan Wilding) (p. 216). Thomas & Mercer. Kindle Edition.

As for the story itself, if you stripped away the Viking aspects this would be a very typical murder/mystery… honestly probably pretty boring.

But Nickless did such an amazing job of researching and weaving in the ritualistic side of things with the killings that you are left at the edge of wondering if it’s actually a person killing these folks or if it’s something supernatural stepping across the bounds of mortal life and claiming souls.

But make no mistake, even though the book FEELS like it’s about to slip into the realm of the supernatural horror, it’s firmly a murder mystery. Which brings us to…

The Not So Good

While I really enjoyed the story, loved the Viking elements and deep dive into aspects of those cultures in the modern day, the flirting with the supernatural left me wanting more than anything for there to be some sort of ancient Viking monster behind it all.

It was absolutely primed to launch off into a terrifying world of horror and then slips right into a hasty murder/mystery wrap-up at the end.

I admit, I loved the fact that I didn’t figure out who the killer was until just before it’s revealed, but even with a nice twisty ending I felt a little let down.

This is likely purely personal taste, as the standard murder/mystery and thriller genres aren’t my usual go to as I already mentioned. Nickless did such a wonderful job of hinting at the sinister Viking supernatural that is motivating the killer that I found I really wanted the story to go there. And when it didn’t… it left me a bit unsatisfied with the story.

The Bottom Line

Overall this was an enjoyable read, story was paced perfectly to match the dreary Chicago mood it all takes place in, and the characters are loveable and interesting.

I found myself thinking often about how I’d love to see a film adaptation of this novel(or series of novels as there is the assumption there will be more adventures with Dr. Evan Wilding). The characters feel tailor made for the big(or small) screen via a feature film or an original streaming series on one of the big platforms.

While the murdery/mystery genre isn’t one that tends to interest me all that much, often the stories fade from memory shortly after reading, this one did stick with me a little longer. This likely due to the aforementioned Viking folklore and teasing of the supernatural horror.

There are moments with characters that feel VERY in your face and obvious, yet nothing will happen to pay it off in the end, particularly with the romantic sub-stories presented over and over. While I don’t mind it, it also feels like we’re being toyed with as readers which may or may not annoy you.

If you enjoy a good murder/mystery story with a solid bit of twisty plot and surprise ending, you’ll enjoy At First Light. However, word of warning. While the Viking folklore and mythology that saturates this book is very cool, if you are a reader that prefers horror and dark fiction to the murdery/mystery genres, you MIGHT find yourself a bit frustrated that this book flirts heavily with and then turns it’s back on what COULD be a highly enjoyable dark fiction/horror story.

I give At First Light (Dr. Evan Wilding #1) by Barbara Nickless a 3 out of 5 stars.

A solid murder/mystery with interesting characters and a story drenched in wonderful Viking lore that left me wishing it was a horror novel vs a thriller.

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