The Wild Lands
By Paul Greci, Imprint Reads/Macmillan, 384 pages, 2019. $17.99
Watching a newly emerging writer develop can be an interesting experience. The first book offers indications of what he or she is capable of, but leaves readers wondering if the author can branch out the next time around. Sometimes that second book can make the first seem like a mere warmup. Other times it can be a severe disappointment. Usually the results fall somewhere in between.
For Fairbanks author Paul Greci, novel number two falls in the medium high end of that in-between scale, which is to say that it’s very good, but it doesn’t so much build on his first book as rework its core theme into a new story.
Greci is in a difficult position. His first young adult book, “Surviving Bear Island,” garnered much deserved national attention and did well. It was the story of boy named Tom who finds himself washed ashore and alone on a remote island in Prince William Sound, who has to survive off his own wits and limited knowledge. It’s by far the best young adult novel to come out of Alaska in many years. But this means Greci started out with a significant hurdle if he wanted to top it.
“The Wild Lands” reprises the theme of young people grappling for survival in the Alaskan wilds, although this time it’s a very different Alaska, Set several decades in the future, this book tells the story of 17-year-old Travis and his 10-year-old sister Jess and opens in their family’s home, such as it is, in the hills outside of Fairbanks.
As we quickly learn, runaway climate change has altered the landscape, and this has been compounded by two years of wildfires that wiped away all signs of life. The first had been set in town by the U.S. government, which was destroying what it was leaving behind after revoking Alaska’s statehood and abandoning it. The second fire might or might not have been set by the now absent government as well, and has destroyed more or less everything in Interior Alaska.
With the oil fields long dried up, supplies are no longer being shipped into the state, electricity has ceased to exist, wildlife and vegetation are gone, there’s no food or gasoline, and communication with the outside world and even other parts of Alaska has vaporized. Most people have fled, with the few remaining now fighting over the nearly depleted resources needed for simple survival. Roving groups and individuals are reduced to killing each other for food. It’s a grim beginning, and a far cry from the comparatively luxurious conditions Greci set Tom against in “Bear Island.”
Where it follows a similar theme, however, is that Travis, like Tom, finds himself without parents and needing to both survive and escape. It also parallels the first book in that Greci draws off of his considerable backcountry experience in Alaska to vividly set the stage, although in this instance he’s burned that landscape to the ground.
Without giving too much away, suffice to say that Travis, who narrates the book in the present tense, decides that he and Jess need to make a run for Alaska’s southern coast, where settlements are rumored to exist where Anchorage and Valdez once stood, and where the possibility of boat passage out of the former state is hoped for. Along the way, they gain and lose companions, encounter people bent on killing them, and when it all shakes out, join forces with two girls Travis’ age named Tam and Max, embarking on their escape together.
As with his first book, Greci is working with a time-tested genre. “Bear Island” was the age-old castaway theme popularized during Europe’s Age of Exploration, while the post-apocalyptic category of “Wild Lands” is rooted in the subconscious fears of modern life. And as with his first book, Greci is able to breathe new life into an overly used idea. Placing his survivors in Alaska, where most of the landscape has never been covered with towns or cities, creates a different kind of tension than found in similar books in which characters wander through metropolises gutted of human life.
Also in keeping with his first book, “Wild Lands” is at heart the story of a young man coming into adulthood through the process of survival, although in this case, Travis’ narrative isn’t as inwardly focused as Tom’s in the first book. Between the presence of other characters and the dangers at nearly every turn, he doesn’t have the time to think about himself as much.
In “Bear Island,” Tom was the only person for nearly the entirety of the book, making the island itself, by default, the only other character. Here Greci creates a quartet of heroes as well as one villain who is nasty in rather unexpected ways, and he develops each of them nicely over the course of the saga.
The story itself is full of clever plot twists, and, like many young adult novels, most chapters end in some sort of cliffhanger, prompting readers to keep turning pages. This one is aimed at a slightly older audience than “Bear Island.” The language is occasionally rough, and it’s pretty violent at times (at one point the corpses pile up faster than they do in “The Walking Dead,” although at least here they stay dead). But when something as morbid as “The Hunger Games” dominates teenage reading diets, “Wild Lands” is hardly off the charts.
What will hopefully emerge from this, however, is Greci finding a new direction, and he can do that with these characters. The book ends with the stage clearly set for a sequel, and the material on offer suggests it could have an entirely different plot. Greci has twice proven he can write captivating stories of teenagers surviving by their wits in the wilderness. It’s where he sends them next that will test his own already admirable skills as a writer.