In the aftermath of nuclear wars and a devastating Asian flu pandemic, feisty 23-year-old Gwendolynn McBride—call her Lynn—faces life-and-death challenges in the Canadian wilds.
Originally from Chicago, where her father was a university biologist, Lynn and her family fled the apocalypse to small-town Alaska when she was 12. Four years later, threatened by the arrival of men suspiciously claiming to be government disease agents, they snuck across the Canadian border into the Yukon. Now living in extreme isolation in log cabins, they hunt whatever animals are available (Lynn is great with a bow) and read Walt Whitman. Seven years pass before they encounter anyone from the outside world. That would be Jax, a taciturn man with a dog named Wolf and a mess of secrets. After he violently dispatches a pack of men who have come after him with the knife-throwing skills of a superhero, Lynn is left wondering whether he's friend or foe—and what the attraction she feels to him is all about. With elements of Cormac McCarthy's The Road and TV's The Walking Dead, the book gets off to a gripping start, blending visceral thrills with existential reflections. For Lynn, who "wanted to escape, to get out and see what was left of the world," snow can be an oppressive force that "smothers the world into submission." At about the midway point, when the young heroine is forced to deal with adversity on her own, the novel loses some of the edge and sense of risk that make it stand out from the genre. A science fiction–ish element seems forced. But this is still a stylishly written debut by a novelist to keep an eye on.
A strong addition to the literature of dystopia, Johnson's outdoor adventure novel is lifted by his command of natural settings and his understanding of family bonding under extreme duress.