By Paul Greci, Imprint, 352 pages, 2020. $17.99
Watching a new writer emerge and develop is one of the pleasures of being a reader. An author comes along with a debut book that captures your attention and makes you want to see what he or she comes up with next. And joining this person as they expand into new areas gives readers a chance to see if they can pull it off.
This brings us to young adult novelist Paul Greci of Fairbanks.
Greci drew national attention in 2015 with his first book, “Surviving Bear Island.” Set in Prince William Sound, it told of a teenaged boy who gets marooned in a sea kayaking accident, and follows his efforts at keeping himself alive while awaiting rescue.
In that book, Greci demonstrated two skills that have characterized his writing ever since. A teacher by trade, he’s familiar with how kids think. In the first-person perspective he’s used with each his novels, he created an authentic young person’s voice. Meanwhile, drawing on his extensive experience with Alaska’s wilds, Greci didn’t just bring the landscape to life, he made it character in the story, exerting its own influence on the plot line. He captures Alaska as well as he captures the teenaged mind, which is to say, quite well.
In his followup novel, “The Wild Lands,” Greci turned to the popular post-apocalyptic genre and sent four kids scurrying across a burned-out Alaska in search of safety. It was fully engrossing, and the hellscape Greci envisioned on the land he loves was both vivid and disturbing. But by returning to the theme of survival, it did indicate that Greci risked falling into a rut. Thus the end of the novel, which set the stage for a sequel and opened the possibility of the next volume heading in the direction of a political thriller, offered hope that he would start exploring new avenues.
In his latest work, “Hostile Territory,” Greci does just this, although it takes a while. A stand-alone novel, this book opens at a remote leadership camp for teenagers. The book’s narrator, Josh, is one of four kids who survive a massive earthquake that sends a landslide down from a nearby mountain, burying their fellow campers and all the adults.
Accompanied by Derrick, a good natured military brat, Shannon, a young woman with Athabascan roots, and Brooke, a self-conscious and aloof girl he’s drawn to, Josh sets out overland to Talkeetna.
As the quartet traverses their way across Alaska, Greci is on familiar ground. All the standard Alaskan hazards await them. Bears, moose with calves, torrential rivers, nearly impassible swamplands, rockslides on slopes, lack of food, water of questionable safety. It’s well conveyed, but also in line with what Greci has offered readers previously.
A plot twist clearly awaits, however. The four kids repeatedly see airplanes and helicopters flying high above. With binoculars they can tell the aircraft aren’t American, but they presume they’re flown by Canadians assisting in recovery efforts.
Needless to say, they’re wrong, and it would be giving away too much to say why. But midway through the book, what began as another survival story morphs into the sort of political thriller that “Wild Lands” left many readers hoping Greci had in him. And for the most part, he delivers.
In the sort of thing that only happens in young adult fiction, the four kids find themselves assigned the job of helping undo what has befallen Alaska in the days after the earthquake. Their task, again, must be left for readers to discover, but thankfully Greci doesn’t concoct some impossible sci-fi scheme in what is in essence a realistic tale. And the location where they carry out their mission will be familiar to many Alaskans, including most Interior residents.
It’s fun, escapist reading for adults, but being a teacher, Greci is primarily aiming his work at kids who are at that vulnerable age when they quit reading in favor of turning their attention to glowing screens. This means that he gets the action moving on page one, and maintains a quick pace. The chapters in this book are quite short, and most end on a cliffhanger designed to keep readers turning pages (it’s a trick that admittedly also worked on my cynical, middle-aged self).
Greci is also improving in his ability to create clearly defined characters. The four stars of this book are more distinct from each other than the lead actors in “Wild Lands,” and the way this drives the plot is also a step forward for Greci as an author. Additionally, Josh is a less angst-ridden teen than Greci’s previous narrators, a welcome development, even if he is wanting to convey to kids that they are not alone in their personal struggles.
Finally, Greci uses the opportunity of a political thriller to throw in a couple of comments about the current state of America, but does so only briefly. A less incisive writer would be tempted to club readers over the head with it, but Greci’s subtle approach carries more weight.
The flaws are minor. The plot is, by nature, far-fetched, which isn’t unreasonable for young adult novels. But he does end the tale rather abruptly, so readers are left unclear on how larger events played out. This book isn’t primed for a sequel, so we’ll likely be left wondering.
Still, “Hostile Territory” is a bigger leap forward for Greci than “Wild Lands,” despite being a step back from the broad reach he made with that one. He’s still writing survival books, but he’s showing how his characters take what they’ve learned and apply it forward. He’s also expanding his plotting palette in ways his previous books didn’t. And he’s showing how events beyond Alaska can potentially impact our sometimes insular state, even as he brings the ground level realities of Alaska to young readers everywhere. He’s come a long ways in just three novels. The fun will be seeing where he travels next.
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