By Jamie Thornton.
(a) I know the author in real life, and have read a few early drafts of parts of this novel years ago.
(b) I received this book for free through Story Cartel.As requested by them, there is a (shortened, less spoiler-cutty) version of this review on Amazon as well. It's still free for a couple days here.
Here's the thing about the subject matter of this story: I am not super into Africa, and I am definitely not into reading about hunting down animals. Or jerky main characters. Or super Christian types. When you start reading about the first two characters featured in the book, you'll be very worried about the scenario that's being set up and where it's going. If some other person (that, well, I didn't know from writing group) had written a book on this topic, I probably wouldn't have been interested had I seen it in a store. I would have thought "not my bag, baby." But I think it says a lot about the writer that when I read excerpts of this story years ago, I actually wanted to read more of it even though none of this would normally be my preferred subject matter. Despite this being totally different from the sort of thing I usually read, I had to grab and review this copy when it was available to do so, because I wanted to know what finally happened in it.
Paul Hunter, formerly known as Paul Besly, is a former missionary turned Great White Hunter sort of dude. He runs a safari business in Tanzania, which is definitely in trouble. The business being in trouble is pretty much all Paul's fault, as he's managed to burn bridges and piss off almost everyone he knows. Among other things he's trying to do to save his business is to get someone to take dramatic photographs and video of animals being shot. After his most recent photographer gets injured during a hunt in the chilling first chapter, Paul resorts to asking a minister he knew from seminary if his nearly 18-year-old daughter Lydia can come out and take the pictures. Thinking his daughter is wanted for a missionary-ish goal, the minister happily accepts, despite his wife's protests ("Don't you dare quote a verse at me." I did enjoy the mom's subtle quote snark here and there.).
Lydia Gibb has spent her entire life being a preacher's kid (PK), and man, is she ever quietly tired of it. She's tired of the reputation, she's tired of the Jesus-y overkill, she's pretty burned out on hearing her dad's "Gibb's Quips." What she wants is to get into National Geographic, which is hard to do when you live in boring ol' Sacramento. So when her dad says that his old missionary buddy needs someone to take pictures, she jumps at the opportunity. It seems almost like a miracle that something like this would happen to a girl like her....except she has zero idea of what she is getting into and pretty much comes across as a lamb being led to slaughter.
Paul is estranged from his 21-year-old son Caleb for various horrible reasons, such as trying to pimp out Caleb's best childhood friend Neela to him as a birthday present. Caleb has changed his name, left the family business, and taken a job in the Wildlife Division as a game officer. Despite the obvious conflicts of interest going on (well, by American standards anyway--in Tanzania it only makes you more suited for the job), Caleb gets assigned to audit and research his father's business. And when Lydia finally arrives at the airport and Paul can't be arsed to go pick her up, Caleb ends up coming to the rescue, despite his disgust at his father's whole ploy. He warns Lydia right off the bat what Paul is up to, that this won't end well, and she should go home (though she doesn't). Caleb is playing the voice of reason in this scenario. He's incredibly sick of his father's behavior and will darned well investigate him, but he'll also do his best to shield Lydia from his father's tricks, such as more possible impending pimpage. Of course, given their age ranges and being attractive and that they're in danger....yup, a little romance might just be blooming.
I will say this for Paul: he is almost entirely a total asshole, and you know it from the getgo. He is also quite the trickster and manages to sucker a lot of people into buying into whatever he's selling. However, the author manages to reveal enough about Paul in glimpses here and there to clue the reader in that he isn't quite all bad. He has his own logic and reasoning, even if say, his version of trying to save Caleb and Neela wouldn't be something that anyone else would agree with. He has a tragic back story that has probably influenced his behavior, and Paul's own take on the situation is rather....surprising.* (More on this below the spoiler cut..) The glimpses of "okay, he's not so bad" make it easier to take Paul despite his villainous behavior, and you keep on reading even though you know he's a bad egg and god only knows how everyone around him is going to survive his hunts. He does seem to genuinely care for his son and want him back in his life on some level, though given the shenanigans that Paul gets up to, that may not be a realistic goal for him. Especially when his plans involve trying to find a rare rhino, which is going against his son's interests.
As for Lydia: I've described her as a lamb to slaughter--clearly Caleb feels the same. But there's more to Lydia than meets the eye, and she decides to brave out the situation and by god, take her pictures anyway even if she doesn't trust Paul and she's downright scared of the client Paul seems to want to pimp her out to. She wants to take her pictures and do something different, and she is going to take advantage of the opportunity. She makes friends with Paul's nicer employees and shows a surprising amount of bravery, especially at the end of the book.** She is, by god, going to get through this. Which makes you proud of her. She's a quiet and young and sheltered character, but her hidden depths come out in this book. To quote her dad (because I must do it at least once): "people are like tea bags, you have to put them in hot water before you know how strong they are."
As for the world building--well, I don't know enough to speak to the technical authenticity of what it's like to hunt in Tanzania. But it felt authentic to read. I honestly don't know if the author has even been to Tanzania, but she does set up the scenario and the environment and the characters and their concerns very well. It's downright chilling to read during the hunt scenes when actual shooting is going on, and it gets very scary and surprising. I thought that was handled excellently. I didn't know how this book was going to end--I don't think I could even have guessed it really.*** The book does go to some dark places (referred to in the spoiler space). And....well, if there's anything to kind of feel irritated about while reading it, it's the fate of Paul (again, see below the spoiler cut).**** It bugged me somewhat, but that may just be me and not something that would get to other people. On the other hand, his last big event in the book is scarily impressive and I kinda have to give him some credit for that one! *****
Overall, I found myself pretty gripped by the entire book. I wish I was this good at doing what she does. Four stars.