Written by Nick Petrie — Nick Petrie’s debut, The Drifter, was our favourite first novel of 2016. So, 2017 starts with a bang for the author with the sequel, Burning Bright, released on 10 January. The book sees the return of is Peter Ash, a veteran Marine lieutenant who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. His war experience has left him with a form of post-traumatic stress disorder that Ash calls ‘the static’. It starts whenever he’s in a confined space – like almost anyplace indoors – and blooms into a full-blown panic attack unless he takes action.
For that reason, he’s spent a lot of time tromping around the deep forests of the northwest United States, living in a tent, trying to convince himself no-one is shooting at him. Unfortunately, as he soon finds out in this book, someone is, and even the Mendocino National Forest isn’t big enough for him to evade danger.
When he climbs a young redwood tree to escape a rampaging bear, he discovers he’s not the only person up there. Following a trail of ropes, he finds a woman with a bow and arrow, the arrow aimed at his heart. Her arrow hits his heart too, but not in the literal sense…
The sound of automatic weapons on the ground tells them they need to get out of there. Their escape through the treetops, 30 stories up and above the fog that fills this mountain forest is pure excitement. You can almost smell the conifers they slip invisibly through. And that’s just the beginning of their non-stop adventure.
The woman, June Cassidy, is on the run. Her mother – an artificial intelligence researcher at Stanford University – was killed by a hit-and-run driver, and all the contents of her office were carried away in the middle of the night by ‘government’ heavies, who later tried to kidnap Cassidy. She isn’t sure what they were after, but her mother was developing an algorithm to penetrate secure networks called Tyg3r. Quite a few determined folks would like to get their hands on that algorithm, and they think Cassidy has it.
Cassidy’s interest is in finding out who killed her mother. Ash’s interest is in Cassidy and in the challenge of using his considerable tactical and physical skills to protect her.
In a recent essay about Lee Child’s character Jack Reacher, London Review of Books editor John Lanchester says that he applies ‘the Superman Test’ to determine whether a thriller exceeds his ability to suspend disbelief. His question: “Is what I’m being asked to believe less likely than the character’s being able to fly?”
Somehow, Petrie’s depiction of Ash and his actions would pass that test. He never plunges into implausibility like so many superhero protagonists. In part that’s because Petrie is meticulous about explaining how Ash and Cassidy do what they do, beginning with how they navigate their high-altitude escape. Whether you understand all those rope climbing terms or not, the details are utterly convincing.
At the same time, it seems less plausible that multiple teams of heavily armed pseudo-governmental agents are driving around in phalanxes of black Ford Explorers. Yet, Ash needs a significant foe, so these bad guys didn’t constitute a Superman Test fail, not quite. There’s a high-tech prize of inestimable value here, and considerable human and firepower resources are brought to bear on acquiring it.
Though heavily overmatched, Ash and Cassidy are not without resources of their own. In addition to their personal skills, Ash calls in some favours from his Marine buddies and a wonderful character first met in The Drifter, his Milwaukee-based pal Lewis. The man is a genius investor and a crack shot, with an awesome sense of humour. Banter between Cassidy and Ash is pretty genuine and entertaining too.
The Northern California and Seattle-area settings are refreshing and full of possibility for the kind of mental isolation that breeds paranoia. And there’s plenty of it in this novel, for the characters and the reader alike, given the game-changing significance of the technologies it explores. As Petrie says in an author’s note, “Large institutions, both public and private, operate with few controls in a fast-changing environment. For some reason, I don’t find this entirely comforting.” Nor will you.
GP Putnam’s Sons
CFL Rating: 5 Stars