This story bears comparison with Jack London’s canine epic Whitefang, a novel Nancy Mitford’s father so enjoyed he never bothered to read any other afterwards. The setting this time is Chernobyl 1986, with a half-wolf, half-dog puppy left behind by Natasha, her broken-hearted seven-year-old owner, once the order to quit the nuclear devastation had come through. Avoiding the subsequent culling of all abandoned animals, the puppy grows into a resourceful mother, fiercely protecting her cubs from dangers, of which there are many. Her chief adversaries are wolves, and there are many descriptions of fights almost to the death before she finally succumbs. Her son Misha lives on, also skilled at surviving ever-present danger but with a few human supporters as well.
These dogs and their various adversaries think like humans but in every other way remain animals. Their chief preoccupation is survival, and for this to happen they must find almost any type of sustenance, particularly scarce in such hard winters. There are plenty of descriptions of the sometimes revolting food they are happy to feed on, including worms as a particular delicacy. The nuclear disaster itself plays a small role in the story after the initial evacuation, but Natasha never gets over having to leave and some of the story describes her own future progress from unhappy child to troubled adult. But this is also a story about hope, and she finally has a long overdue slice of luck just before the end.
Jack London excelled in describing canine fights, and Anthony McGowan is adept at doing this too. By the end his readers will know everything about how to maim and kill at this level, and for some there may be just a little too much of this as yet another wolf invasion is thwarted. But others may find such moments exactly what is called for in a story that never lets up in excitement and overall engagement from start to finish.