Raven, the first novel by international correspondent and travel/war/human catastrophe author Robert Young Pelton, is available exclusively from the author’s site as a downloadable ebook.
Not knowing Robert Young Pelton as an author, I had no specific expectations around his novel, Raven. The title and the cover suggest that this is about the Pacific Northwest–British Columbia in particular.
But otherwise, I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I started reading this book.
Raven is about 13-year-old Alex Wilden, who is going on a rather badly conceived canoe trip down the Stikine river with his school. The principal of the school, Smith, is a sadistic megalomaniac who is willing to risk his students’ life for a publicity coup. Alex, a reserved Californian dealing with abandonment issues, goes on the trip without enthusiasm or interest–only to become the only boy on the trip to really learn from the natural environment and really understand its power and meaning.
After a disaster in the Grand Canyon of the Stikine river (a mighty body of water–I checked Google Maps and followed it from its headwaters at Happy Lake), Alex needs to learn how to survive in the northern wilderness. With the help of an old hermit, he finally discovers what he truly is made of, but with great sacrifices along the way.
In a nutshell, this is a typical story of adventure and survival–and its realism is obvious. The wilds are dangerous, and few of us really know what the hell we’re doing without the comforts of modern technology. If you’re reading the book for an account of survival in the forests of British Columbia, you’ll find this novel compelling.
The problem is making it to the point where the narrative reaches a good pace–and feeling for the characters.
The novel is a bit sluggish, especially at the beginning. I feel like too much focus was given to the school scenes and the early parts of the expedition. I was more than halfway through before I felt I really wanted to keep reading.
Don’t get me wrong: the hardships of survival definitely come through. But I didn’t find myself really caring for Alex or his fate until the narrative reached a certain point. Unfortunately, it means that all that comes before is just… meh. Although I did care a little about Alex at the end, I couldn’t really feel anything for any of the other characters. And I guess given the narrative, that might be intentional, but this actually weakens the story rather than strengthens it.
As a whole, Pelton gives us an interesting if a bit unequal story that takes a little too long to lift off. I think a lot of the early sections could be condensed and edited; much of the backstory could be integrated in the events of the early expedition rather than inserted as separate chapters. The constant back and forth tended to put me out of the actual story and distracted more than helped. For example, it’s obvious that Smitty has it in for Alex; it’s not really necessary to give us an expository chapter about how and why.
There’s a good core to the story: it’s your age-old yet still-compelling boy-becomes-man, alone-and-lost-in-the-woods story that we still find fascinating, not matter how much our society claims to have conquered nature. Obviously, we have not.
There are deep lessons about the nature of will and humans’ unstoppable survival instinct; it’s also very much about learning when to bow to nature and live in harmony with her. It’s not overly moralizing, but the message is easy to discern.
If you like survival and adventure, you’ll definitely get some enjoyment out of this novel. But if you’re looking for stylish writing, a well-paced narrative or depth of character, you will have to look elsewhere.