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Onyx reviews: Those Who Wish Me Dead by Michael Koryta

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 07/29/2014

Ethan Serbin, who taught survival skills in the Air Force (much to his father's dismay), now conveys those same skills to civilians in the Beartooth Mountains. He knows his strategies and advice work because he has heard back from former students who've found themselves in perilous situations and put into practice the things they learned from him. However, Ethan has never been in danger himself, so it's all been theoretical. Until now.

One of his former students, a private security consultant, approaches him with a proposal. She has a teenage boy who witnessed a pair of contract killings. The boy's life is in jeopardy until he testifies against the murderers, who are still at large. She and the boy's parents don't trust law enforcement to keep him safe, so he isn't in the Witness Protection Program. The best thing would be to get him completely off the grid, and there's no place farther from civilization than Montana. Jace will join one of Ethan's teenage wilderness adventures under an assumed name. No one, not even Ethan, will know which member of the group he is, although he and his wife Allison can't help trying to guess.

There are a lot of dangers in Big Sky Country, where cell phones are useless and the nearest person might be miles away. A person can fall while climbing a mountain. He can get lost and die from exposure, thirst or hunger. There are wild animals and snakes. Being struck by lightning is a very real possibility. Voracious wildfires can outrun a person. Greater than all these dangers combined are the Blackwell brothers, a pair of hired killers who speak to each other around anyone else in their presence, chattier but equally ruthless versions of the Salamanca cousins from Breaking Bad. They arrive on the scene shortly after Ethan begins his outing with the boys and immediately begin laying waste to everyone and everything that crosses their paths. They don't leave behind witnesses and aren't above starting a forest fire to cover their tracks. One might be tempted to brand them sociopaths except for their obvious affection for each other.

Once Jace realizes that the killers are on his trail, he separates from the group. By escaping from them once, he's ahead of anyone else upon whom the Blackwells have set their targets, but his chances of survival alone are scant. Still, he's learned a few things from Ethan that bolster him. Simply being able to start a fire props up his confidence. However, he's at the center of a near-perfect storm of danger. His only ally is a former firefighter named Hannah Faber who recently abandoned that career after a poor decision in the midst of a conflagration led to a horrific outcome. She's now manning a watch tower and mentally advising her former colleagues when she detects a spreading fire. 

Koryta doesn't waste any time laying on the pressure, and readers might be forgiven for wondering if he can sustain this sense of pervasive dread for nearly four hundred pages. Fear not: he can and does. When Ethan is forced to assist the Blackwells in locating Jace in the wilderness, he runs through a series of scenarios where he might get the upper hand, only to have his hopes dashed time and time again. The Blackwells are near perfect killing machines, the kind of men who know intuitively how to position themselves so an adversary can't get the drop on both of them at the same time. The body count grows as they close in on their target until only one thing stands in their way: the raging forest fire they themselves set.

For a book of this size, Those Who Wish Me Dead is a fast read, a taut thriller that sweeps readers along while simultaneously astonishing with its attention to setting. Fans of Longmire (either the TV series or the novels by Craig Johnson) will find themselves in familiar territory, and Koryta paints a chillingly beautiful portrait of this untouched and lethal territory. He also manages to surprise and surprise again with plot twists on top of situations of ultimate peril.

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