The Raven’s Gift by Don Rearden (Pintail, June 2013 )-When John Morgan and his wife, Anna, set off to a remote Alaskan village to teach, they know they’re in for adventure, and they do find it, but soon, what started off as something exciting turns to something terrifying when the little village is hit by the flu and people start dying at an alarming rate. Unfortunately, Anna is one of the casualties, and soon, desperate to survive, John sets out into the frozen expanse to hopefully find survivors, and a reason to go on. What he does find is a blind young woman who has miraculously survived on her own. She joins John and what follows is their fight to survive among sickness, death, and the people that have chosen a method of survival that is an abomination.
The Raven’s Gift’s narrative shifts between the present and John and Anna’s first days among the Yup’ik people. The wonder at these hardy people and their harsh living conditions shines through, even amidst their frustration at rather primitive surroundings, but they make do, and it’s a fascinating look into a very different way of life. Their devotion to each other is evident, but never cloying, and right before Anna dies, she extracts a promise from John. We do eventually find out what that promise is, and it’s one of the things that helps to raise this story above most survival/dystopian fare, although it’s certainly not the only thing. Reardon has a way with words, never overdoing the narrative but creating just enough atmosphere, in all the right places, that will set the little hairs on the back of your neck on end. There are some genuinely creepy passages in this novel, and they serve to create some very real tension during their journey. I can’t imagine having to survive in these conditions, and I swear while I was reading I wanted to wrap my blanket around me for warmth. As hard as things get for John and the girl, it’s their burgeoning relationship that adds warmth and poignancy, and you’ll want to keep an eye out for the survivalist that they meet along the way, whose acts of kindness are ultimately heartbreaking. The Raven’s Gift is a wonderful combination of survival/dystopian and yes, even love story that will satisfy readers looking for something that’s beautifully written (and yes, clichés be damned, uplifting) and just plain good. Oh, and it has one of the best endings that I’ve read in a long time. Put this one on your must read list.