By choice, I usually don't read best-seller Thrillers. In fact, I had read author Koryta before, dropping his So Cold The River after an 390-page perusal. But this time, I was in Montana for Christmas, I was bedridden with a cold, I needed something riveting but easy.
Imagine my surprise to find this read quite remarkable on most levels—intelligent, non-pandering, usefully informative about wilderness exploring and survival—all experienced under the pressure and threat so graphically illustrated on the book cover. It's the immensity and beauty of raw nature, but even more of a wonderment when balanced against the most deadly of natural, land-based disasters, the forest fire. There's flaws, sure. Mostly in plotting, but this one is truly un-put-down able. I loved its experience.
A fourteen-year-old kid named Jace Wilson witnesses a murder. The professional killers—two brothers named Jack and Patrick Blackwell from Australia —spot but miss catching him. Witness Protection is not sophisticated enough to keep these bad boys away, so, through an ex-US Marshall turned bodyguard-for-hire named Jamie Bennett, Jace gets his named changed to Conner and hustled off to the Montana wilderness and into a survival program run by Ethan and Allison Serbin. There's not too many places further off the grid than this setup.
And he's in good, competent hands. Ethan's ex-Air Force survival instructor, an expert in SERE: survival, evasion, resistance, and escape. Allison's a Miss Montana runner-up beauty, and “old Montana , third generation, a rancher's daughter”(p.23). Conner joins a group of five other boys and Ethan immediately outfits them, then marches them into the wilderness to camp and train on how to stay alive under dire circumstances.
Natch, the dreaded Blackwell brothers show. They are wonderful, dark creations. Their dogged intensity and deadly focus is reminiscent of Leonel and Marco—the Cousins—those cowboy-booted Mexican cartel assassins from Breaking Bad, as if voiceovered by the sly and deadly-cold articulation of Boyd Crowder, that Southern, bourbon-cut drawl with thesaurus-rich vocabulary from TV's Justified. These boys are damn unsettling, spooky, and flat-out badasses. They always stand apart from each other, so your only bead on them is always peripheral. They seem totally unstoppable.
While bouncing back and forth between Ethan and his campers, Allison and her healing horse Tango, the Blackwell Bros. escapades as they slaughter everything in their way, the ensemble is joined by Hannah Faber, an ex-hotshot firefighter ridden with guilt after her team and lovers' burning up from her wrong call. She's now put herself on firewatch duty from a tower in the mountains. She's re-cooping, but has lost all confidence. After the Blackwells start a blaze as a diversion, she's the one that spots it, and she's the one lucky Conner runs into when the Blackwells go into the woods after him.
Author Koryta suspensefully puts his characters between two natural but indifferent killers: sociopathic human murderers and a 1500-degree fire that travels faster than you can run. During the ordeal, he teaches fire and wilderness survival techniques, but, most importantly, he creates situations of ultimate challenge to the emotional and physical capacities of his characters.