Kindle Edition, 400 pages
Published: June 3, 2014 by Little, Brown and Company (1st published 2014)
Literary Awards: Audie Award for Thriller/Suspense (2015), Pennsylvania Young Readers’ Choice Award for Young Adults (2016), ALA Alex Award (2015)
Setting: Rural Montana
Alone in a Midwestern quarry at night, 13-year-old Jace Wilson sees a brutal murder. The killers know they have a witness, but unable to spot Jace in the dark, rocky crevices, they leave him alive — for now.
In the stark, desolate beauty of the Montana mountains, Ethan and Allison Serbin have built a cabin, which they’ve dubbed “the Ritz.” Ethan, a military veteran and survival trainer, runs a wilderness camp for troubled teenaged boys. They come to him angry, damaged, untrusting, and eager to prove themselves in the wrong ways. He teaches them to respect one another, because they may have to rely on each other to make it out of the woods alive, and they gradually gain confidence through learning tangible survival skills. Allison is rehabilitating an injured horse, and the loving couple has built the life they’ve always hoped for.
Hannah Faber was an elite firefighter until she was devastated by a tragedy in the field. Now she mans a fire lookout tower. She tries to escape paralyzing grief and guilt through solitude.
These characters eventually come together after Jace has been taken “off the grid” and hidden in Ethan’s wilderness survival camp as a safer alternative to witness protection. The killers pursuing Jace, who call themselves the Blackwell brothers, are still on his trail, and things quickly spiral out of control.
A well-honed, suspenseful plot and interesting characters make this an absorbing thriller. Seeing a child in danger is a powerful hook, and Ethan’s tender, loyal relationship with Allison makes it impossible not to root for them. Best of all, the Blackwell brothers are gratifyingly bat-crap crazy psychopaths. The plot is well paced with spare but vivid descriptions of the natural world, enriched by the author’s knowledge of the wilderness.
Furthermore, the novel’s exploration of wilderness survival, and the skills Ethan teaches the boys and uses when he is in danger, make this book much more interesting. I was fascinated with the way Ethan works with his charges and how the expertise he has developed to survive in the wilderness lends itself to crucial plot points. Hannah’s knowledge of surviving forest fires also comes into play. I discovered new information in this book while exploring wild terrain with which I — as a denizen of the East Coast — was wholly unfamiliar. I have hiked the mountains here in the Shenandoah Valley, but compared to the rocky peaks of Montana, they are merely glorified hills. 🙂
Suspense and thriller aficionados will find a satisfying story that fulfills their expectations but, at the same time, this author can show us something new. Like most novels in the genre, it requires suspension of disbelief at some points, but it is sufficiently well-crafted to make it easy to go along for the ride. And while it is definitely plot-driven, without the complex character development one would look for in more literary fiction, the characters are well drawn and likeable. This intense, captivating, sometimes violent novel will be well loved by many readers.