Those Who Wish Me Dead by Michael Koryta (Little, Brown, June 2014)-I’m not new to Koryta’s work, and really enjoyed The Prophet, so I had high expectations for this one. Since I read it in one afternoon, it’s pretty safe to say they were met. I’m a sucker for survival stories, and this is one, but it’s also a thriller that pretty much starts with a bang and doesn’t stop to take a breath. Jace Wilson is 13 when he decides to practice his diving in a quarry in order to make good on an ill conceived bet. He’s worried about the fallout if he fails to deliver on the dive, but when he encounters a dead body in the water, throat cut, after one of his dives, the bet becomes the least of his worries. This is a creepy, creepy scene, and Koryta sets it up perfectly, especially from the perspective of a 13 year old boy. If the body wasn’t bad enough, the two killers actually return, with a hostage, and poor Jace actually witnesses that killing.
Jace is subsequently given a false identity, and eventually finds his way to Ethan and Allison Serben, who run a survival wilderness program in Montana. Ethan and Allison are approached by former US Marshall Jamie Bennett, who had previously taken part in one of Ethan’s survival courses. Jamie gives them the bare minimum that they need to know in order to make a decision: one of the boys in their next survival program will be a witness under a fake name, and there is little to no chance that he will be found in the Montana wilderness. Allison initially thinks it’s way too risky, and Ethan does too, but Allison knows that he won’t say no, that he can’t say no. Soon, Ethan and Allison meets the new group of boys, and off they go, with Allison manning the radio, but with no knowledge of their route this time. One would think that Jace would be safe in the mountains, but these killers are far from ordinary.
Let’s talk about the Blackwood brothers (our intrepid killers) for a minute. Not only do they have absolutely no qualms about killing, and killing a child, no less, but they’re just creepy. The author notes that it’s like they’re in their own little world, and everyone else is just window dressing to be dealt with. They’re as cool, calm and collected as it comes, and very, very capable. As you can guess, a game of cat-and-mouse is afoot, but it’s in the Montana mountains with an advancing forest fire, and it’s a chilling scenario. Jace is a smart, capable kid, though, and he’s got Ethan, Allison, and emotionally damaged former firefighter, Hannah Faber, at his back. Koryta has a gift for smart characters that don’t stretch believability (they’re smart, but flawed, too), and in Allison and Hannah, he’s given us some of the strongest female protagonists that I’ve seen in a long time. Yes, Ethan is manning the survival expedition, but Allison is no wilting violet sitting at home waiting for her husband to return. She’s awesome, and the lengths that she will go to in order to protect those she loves is boundless. I also love a thriller that makes my jaw drop, and this one did it in the third act. I couldn’t put it down, seriously. This is a smart thriller with smart characters and some of the most unearthly bad guys I’ve read in a while. The pacing and dialogue reminded me a bit of peak Koontz (without the SF/supernatural element), and for me, this is a positive. Koryta’s got his own unique mojo, however, and it works, as does just about everything in this book. This is the perfect summer thriller.