Poison Bay by Belinda Pollard will make you never want to go camping again. This is a truly scary book which will leave the reader to appreciate the need for self-reliance in situations of crisis when to face the crisis means the possibility of winning and failure means death. And if you think you had friends along on the ride; you will be disappointed. In this novel, another name for friends is “suspects.”
The end-of-high-school party should have been a great party. It was, until Liana showed up with a gun and, after threatening some of her former classmates, committed suicide instead. But this is the beginning of the story, not the end. Readers may never be entirely clear about how eight of her classmates, and other characters in this story, spent the following almost-decade. But almost ten years later, eight of those present at the party, all with private thoughts and memories of Liana, will meet in a remote wilderness area of New Zealand to commemorate the anniversary of her death by a hike through some very rugged country. Several of them would wonder why they participated; they were not hikers.
Bryan was a spoiled rich kid and the boyfriend of Liana. One sign that he took her death hard was that he lived as a tour guide in a remote area. He organized the memorial hike. Not only did he send invitations; he provided money to his former colleagues so they could buy the proper equipment to survive almost anything in the area they would hike through. Bryan warned them there would be hazards if they were not careful. It was winter, there were snowstorms and rainstorms. And avalanches. And weird huge birds the size of large parrots which were aggressive and would steal camper supplies. But Bryan had used the ten years to become an expert woodsman, tracker, hunter, fisherman, and survival expert. He knew the best equipment to buy, the right amounts of the best food to take, and the best communication devices to take in case of emergencies.
The reader meets the party and gets to know something of them before the trek starts. The reader also meets some of the local inhabitants of the area, people who also know the area, Sgt. Hubble and his trusted deputy, Tom Ganton. There is a subtle hint before the trek that something isn’t right. Bryan has told the police a different version of the hikers’ destination than the one he told the hikers. Still, everyone is well equipped, so off they go.
During the first part of the planned ten-day trip, the first several days strain the stamina and strength of all but Bryan. The others are a bit put off by his demanding pace, but all go along because they know when they arrive at a certain point they will meet a boat, the tough part of the journey will be over, and they will return to the land of the Big Mac and normality.
But Bryan has a plan, one that developed from a sense of just revenge for an imagined murder of Liana. All the people invited on the trek had responsibility for Liana’s death. Bryan thought the time had arrived for them to pay. After forcing the hikers to a point of utter exhaustion, Bryan revealed to them the real reason for the hike; all participants were to die. Bryan led by example when he committed suicide by jumping off a cliff into water cold enough to kill within seconds. Although Bryan had revealed their ultimate planned fate, he did not reveal the several sabotage points of equipment he had made. The satellite phone and GPS didn’t work. The food they brought along would not support a trip back along the path they had come, even if they could find the path. And Bryan had made secret deals with some members of the trekkers that assured them wealth, but only if they (or him, or her) were to be the sole survivor.
So the inexperienced trekkers marched on. They did not have orienteering skills. People got sick. People died (or were killed). As the number of trekkers dwindled, suspicions arose among the survivors. Who had possibly killed one of their colleagues? Who was hoarding food? Why was Kain so stand-offish? Will Jack and Callie have a relationship? Will they survive? Rachel has a supply of insulin, but not enough if they get lost. Will she survive? And, as an aside, who brought the gun?
There are many, many surprises here. I have not even hinted at the surprises that happen at the basecamp for the search efforts once it became apparent that the trekkers were overdue. Characters are well developed and put into incredibly stressful situations to explore core personalities.
With all that, there are beautiful descriptions of nature and the power of nature as all characters alternately praise and curse natural events that kill some characters and aid others in their survival attempts.
This is a great, read-it-in-one-sitting book.