#REVIEW: The Raven’s Gift, by Don Rearden

This is one of those reviews that, if I’m not careful, is going to sound sort of insulting. I picked up The Raven’s Gift after deciding that it was time for me to read a book from Alaska for my #readaroundtheworld thing and deciding I wanted a book written by someone indigenous and not just some yahoo who had moved there. I literally searched for names and picked a book that looked like it had a fair chance of being something I’d enjoy. I’m at the point now where I have four or five books that are by people living in the extreme North somewhere on the planet, and there’s something about living in the cold and the tundra that makes for excellent thrillers. Here’s where I need to cross my fingers and hope that y’all understand what I’m getting at with my comparison: you know how occasionally you get McDonald’s, and somehow your Double Quarter Pounder with cheese is just, like, the platonic ideal of the Double Quarter Pounder with cheese? And you actually sit back after you eat it and rub your stomach and think Man, I probably just took another day off my lifespan, but it was worth it?

Don Rearden’s The Raven’s Gift is the literary equivalent of the perfect Double Quarter Pounder with cheese. I mean, it’s not bad for you or anything, but it knows what sort of book it is and it is an exceptionally well-crafted example of the form. I’d call it a beach read, but half of it is about avoiding freezing to death so it maybe isn’t a beach read.

The Raven’s Gift is about a young white couple, both teachers, who accept a job in a remote– and by remote I mean remote— village in Alaska to serve as literally half the teaching faculty at the village’s school. The husband takes the high school kids and teaches everything but math, and the wife ends up with the younger kids. The recruiter warns them that the job has been hell on couples before, and points out that no matter how prepared they think they are, they aren’t— that he has had teachers arrive at the village (by plane, the only way to reach it) and take one look and refuse to get off the plane. This is a community of people used to subsistence farming, and absolutely everything that can’t be manufactured by hand has to be flown in specially, including things like fuel and food. No running water. That sort of thing.

And then the bird flu hits, and the village is very quickly cut off, and … well, that’s the setup. The book does an interesting thing temporally where it tells the story in two parallel time tracks, one beginning when they first accept the job and the second beginning after Something Bad happens because of the plague, and for a lot of the book it isn’t entirely clear what’s going on– whether it’s a normal (well, exceptionally virulent, but “natural”) disease or a government conspiracy or something more supernatural, and while this is not a zombie story, you never feel like you’d be suprised if a corpse stood up and started shambling around, and as they get farther into the epidemic the survivors start resembling the walking dead more and more anyway.

I started this book Thursday night and finished it today, and I came damn close to finishing it last night but couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer with about 40 pages left. This is a great piece of craft even if it’s not the most original book on the shelves– I read at least one book last year from northern Canada that I could have written almost exactly the same summary of except without the fish-out-of-water complication of the white protagonists, and another set in Iceland this year that worked a murder mystery into the mix– but originality ain’t everything. Give it a read if you’re in the mood for a claustrophobic, dark, cold thriller. Maybe wait until it’s warmer outside, though.

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Luther M. Siler

Teacher, writer of words, and local curmudgeon. Enthusiastically profane. Occasionally hostile.