Review by Juhyun Tony Bae
Candlewick Press, Penguin Random House, September 2019
240 pages, hardcover, $19.99 CAD, 978-1-53620-264-9
Ages 12+, Grades 7-10
Young Adult, Action/Adventure, Thriller
“I’ve got to find him,” Nate would say. And his mother would shush him. And he’d yell at her. “No! You don’t understand. He needs me. He’s waiting for me up there!” Eventually he would wear himself out. “It’s all my fault,” he’d say. “It’s all my fault.” His voice would grow hoarse and the tears would come and finally he’d lay his head back down on his pillow. His mother would fuss with the covers as if he were a five-year-old, touch her fingers to her lips and place them on his forehead, a benediction. Then she’d leave the room. But his father would stand there in the dark. Stand guard until he fell asleep. Stand there as long as it took.
Five months ago, Nate’s best friend Dodge drowned in a tragic accident along with his family up near their cabin, but his body was never recovered. Knowing how reckless Dodge can be, Nate blames himself for not being there to stop the accident from occurring. After multiple nightmares, he decides to go up to the wilds himself, hoping to find answers. After lying to his parents about going up with friends, he heads up to the cabin by himself, only to find it occupied by murderers laying low after a recent prison escape. With a blizzard blowing in, Nate must find a way to survive, trapped between the forces of nature and the equally merciless killers. Several of the book’s themes tackle relationships between men—through friendship, fatherhood, and facing toxic masculinity.
The Starlight Claim’s premise is a killer one (pardon the pun) and it delivered on some of the things I was hoping for, while missing the mark on others. At times, the story suffers from distractions, but whenever it’s focused on Nate’s struggle with nature or the killers, it’s absolutely thrilling. Wynne-Jones masterfully increases the tension during standoffs, chases, and when Nate is tracking through the cold. You’ll find yourself flipping through the pages at a lightning pace. On top of it all, the story structure is clear with plenty of set-ups and foreshadowing. It never leaves its readers confused and needing to backtrack.
The novel is at its weakest when away from these main conflicts, and for this book, they come in the form of flashbacks—and there are lots and lots of them. Now, I’m not the type of person to frown upon flashbacks as a concept—I think when done well, they can be great to read—there are just a few problems with how they’re handled here. First is the sheer amount of them: sometimes they have very little to do with what’s going on in the main narrative, resulting in the sense that you’re reading filler. Secondly, they usually aren’t driven by conflict, so whenever they come up, the book loses the momentum it has gathered in the main story. These flashbacks appear in the narrative as Nate thinks back on his time spent with Dodge around the cabin, and seem to serve the purpose of building up Dodge as a character. Unfortunately, he’s depicted as an unlikeable bully, even to the point where I had a hard time believing in this strong bond they supposedly shared. Another side effect of having so many flashbacks is that—since Nate filters all his thoughts through Dodge and his father—it is very hard to get a sense of who Nate is as a person. Even by the end, I just knew that he was a good kid.
Still, if the premise interests you, The Starlight Claim is a book worth considering. You won’t find deep meaning underneath these pages but sometimes you want to read a book just for the thrill of it, and this book provides that in spades.
Juhyun Tony Bae is a Korean-Canadian writer currently studying at UBC. He’s been working on a dystopian YA novel that he says will be completed between the next one to fifty years. His work has been published in Grain, FreeFall, and Wax Poetry and Art. Currently, he’s also been writing video game reviews. You can follow him on twitter @jTonyBae.