WOLF WINTER

By Clare Francis

Morrow. 558 pp. $19.95

With its howling title and its icy northern Scandinavian setting, Clare Francis' new novel suggests an intimidating blend of Stephen King horror and Ingmar Bergman darkness. Don't be fooled. This might be the most exciting adventure story about Lapland you'll ever read.

Clare Francis understands adventure from the inside. According to her publisher, she twice sailed the Atlantic and holds a speed record for solo crossing by a woman. In her first novel, Night Sky, she put her navigational knowledge to good use in the English channel passages of that World War II saga of love and death during the occupation of France.

There are fewer references to the sea in Wolf Winter, although her hero, a Norwegian climber named Halvard Starheim, does live on an island and does build his own boat. What is remarkable is Francis' ability to carry her readers along with her on a story whose subject is the Cold War, with the emphasis on cold. She creates enough blizzards, hypothermal ski-touring treks and wintry Arctic nights in this novel to send shivers down a reindeer's spine. For adventure-lovers weaned on tales that take place in the Amazon or the Sahara, it might sound like unpromising territory. But Francis makes Lapland -- the region in the far north of Norway, Finland and the Soviet Union -- a genuinely interesting place, peopled by tough folks who apparently share many of the sterling survival qualities of Himalayan Sherpas.

The plot of Wolf Winter is weaker than its characters. The book begins at the end of World War II. Two teen-aged Norwegian patriots encounter two other young Norwegians who escape from a party of pursuing Nazis by burying them in an avalanche. Nearly 20 years later, one of the escapees is an Oslo journalist, while the two teen-agers have become nationally known explorers. I don't think I give away much by noting that, very early in the game, we realize the journalist, who was aided by Soviet troops at the end of his escape, is a spy. The twist is that both the spy and the explorer are linked to our heroine, who happens to be the wife of Starheim's war buddy.

The rest of the book deals with how the spy goes about sabotaging Norway's links with NATO. Among his more despicable acts is to engage an older woman, well-placed in Norway's intelligence community, in a sordid affair. The grateful dupe leaks vital information in exchange for sexual favors, an unusual reverse angle on typical spy-sex scandals.

Ragna Johansen, the heroine, gives Wolf Winter greater texture than most thrillers. She experiences some of the same personality growth that made Julie Lescaux, the heroine of Night Sky, such an appealing character. Both are women who do not set out to be brave. Rather, they are just single parents trying to get through life without too many scars. Bravery, however, is a dagger flung at the foot of each woman, and each woman responds to the challenge.

Ragna Johansen reminds me a bit of Jane in Lie Down With Lions, Ken Follett's suspense novel about Afghanistan. Both women's heroism emerges slowly, out of a need for justice rather than out of macho posturings. Like Jane, Ragna plays a central role in a page-turner of a chase that is the climax of the book.

AFTER LOSING her husband on a mysterious expedition on the Arctic plateau in 1960, Ragna, a former actress, is left alone with her son and her clothing shop in a dreary small town. Her concern for the rights of the Lapps (now there's a neglected minority group!) takes her to Oslo as a lobbyist. Drawn to Starheim, she is seduced by the more aggressive journalist, Rolf Berg. Nevertheless, when push comes to shove, quite literally, on cross-country skis in some barren wilderness where her husband was killed, we know we can count on her to do the right thing, not to mention choose the right man.

Clare Francis borrows liberally from the characters in her first novel in fleshing out the more reserved Norwegians of Wolf Winter. Once again, a villain has recurring nightmares based on a relationship in his childhood. Once again the heroine battles incredible perils when her son's life is at stake. Once again the hero becomes a touching substitute father for the boy.

Despite these similarities, Wolf Winter is a galloping good read. The best parts so evocatively create a sense of the beauty of northern Scandinavia that I look forward to the movie . . . or at least to a Scandinavian ski trip. Meanwhile, the book is perfect for dark nights in the dead of winter. ::

Grace Lichtenstein, a New York-based journalist, is an enthusiastic skier.