A runaway wildfire tests the mettle and reawakens the spirits of a battle-scarred firefighter in the Canadian author’s latest (The Trade Mission, 2002, etc.).
Four-fifths of a very good novel, this begins splendidly, with an incrementally detailed picture of hard lives in the Yukon wilderness (300 miles south of the Arctic Circle) in the remote town of Ross River (“We’re the shit end of the stick out here”). It’s a tough town indeed, where fire chief Miles McEwan (who bears disfiguring facial and bodily scars from old burns, along with equally painful memories) commands a hard-drinking crew of phlegmatically heroic firemen; wrestles with the aftereffects of an affair with hunting guide Margot Lemontagne and the hatred of her embittered current lover, Wade Fuerst; and wonders how to react to the unexpected reappearance of Alex, the woman whom he had loved and left before Margot, and the young daughter (Rachel) whose existence comes as a complete surprise to him. Pyper explores their intensifying interrelationships skillfully, filling in explanatory details with precisely timed flashbacks, and disclosing actions from the viewpoints of numerous involved souls, including all the aforementioned characters, the elderly couple who engage Margot’s services and—quite imaginatively—a female grizzly bear who loses her cubs to humans and becomes, as much as does the spreading fire which provides the central plot, the incarnation of an embattled natural world patiently, implacably seeking its revenge. Two grievous miscalculations all but ruin the novel. Brief sequences shown from the viewpoint of an unidentified arsonist are never brought to resolution, and an overly melodramatic chain of coincidental climaxes drains away much of the credibility built up by the story’s rich specificity. The ending toward which Pyper shapes his story is simply not believable.
It’s a pity: This might have been a truly exemplary thriller.