It seems like every time I finish an Andrew Klavan book, I’m impressed anew with how easily he can drag me into a story. I like predicting things. I like working things out. After reading his first series: the Homelanders, I thought I’d done that. Well, I thought, undoubtedly, that was great suspense, but he works with a formula. Handsome, strong, Christian patriot dude fights people that don’t agree with him and Gets The Girl.
When I got Klavan’s next book, Crazy Dangerous, I settled myself in for some highbrow criticism. Ah ha! I said. Here’s a cleancut American Christian dude—this is the same thing. But it wasn’t. If Charlie West was Jet Li, Sam Hopkins was Barney Fife. He had no super cool blackbelt skills, and his obstacles were given a quite different flavor. The suspense was nail-bitingly good. But there was a beautiful secondary character who classified as The Girl, and was there to be Got. Phew. I had predicted one thing. Obviously, there was a formula somewhere.
I started his latest, If We Survive, with some desperation. Same American dude, but again, he’s not Charlie West, nor Sam Hopkins. Even worse, the love interest isn’t really there to be a love interest! She’s a fully developed character of her own. The plot is unpredictable and sound, the good guys are imperfect – my highbrow criticism falls apart. And no one does suspense like Andrew Klavan.
What purpose is there in explaining all this? Only to say that Andrew Klavan transcends the genre. Christian Fiction is hard enough to write as it is, but he doesn’t slip into any of the usual pitfalls. The most usual criticism is preachiness, taking simple truths and says them, well, simply. Frankly, he does do that, but it’s moved well outside feel-good moralizing by the gritty circumstances of the story. His characters aren’t given these conclusions on a silver platter. They have to fight for them, with blood, sweat, and tears. It’s not a Sunday school lesson (thank God. We all hate those, especially in our suspense novels). If We Survive is the best example of this yet.
Sixteen-year-old Will Peterson is an Average Bloke—getting by in school, trying to ignore his parent’s fighting, immersing himself in video games. When he’s invited on a mission trip to South America, he jumps at the chance, hoping his problems will solve themselves while he’s gone. Fortunately (for us, I mean), he’s heading into much bigger danger. It’s actually on the very day the mission team is scheduled to leave that the government falls to the revolutionaries. Armed guerillas burst into the building, taking the American kids hostage. Suddenly, what had been a simple mission trip turns into a nightmare. Eventually, they manage to escape, and with the guidance of a guy who reminds me very much of Han Solo, they end up in the jungle heading for the border.
The cast of characters in If We Survive is much more developed than earlier novels, partly because of the necessary isolation of the setting. There’s the protagonist, Will, who’s a little more macho than Sam Hopkins, but more conflicted than Charlie West. He’s also got a bit of a poetic streak. There’s Nicki, the Representative of Shallow Teenage Girls (and a rather realistic one – I’ve known several very like her). There’s Jim, the Apologizing American, Communist-Sympathizer. He’s the liberal of the group—but Klavan paints a surprisingly sympathetic portrait.
Next up, Meredith Ward, who is the really cool one. In previous books, Klavan’s girls have mostly been there as the reason for fighting. The guy has a girlfriend back home; thinking of her keeps him going. I’m not knocking that strategy, but Meredith is totally cooler. She’s also not Lara Croft. She doesn’t kick butt—she’s actually, ha, realistic. She’s what most of us, I think, male or female, wish we were—fearless and faithful. If there was any doubt, Klavan can do justice to a primary female character. She’s obviously the role model in the book.
Lastly, there’s Palmer Dunn—the Han Solo guy. An ex-marine, he’s ended up in the rainforest, disappointed and bitter. His storyline, a chance at redemption, is worthy of a protagonist.
Overall, I’d say that If We Survive is Klavan’s best YA novel yet (though the others are terrific as well). Its standout points are better character development, a less black-and-white moral landscape (the bad guys are bad, but the American-supported government isn’t much better), greater darkness, and conversely, greater hope. Like most of his books, once I was a chapter or two in, I couldn't put the dang thing down (really, it's stuck to my fingers, Mom) until I turned the last digital page. Tremendous fun. And hey, it’s in the jungle. Doesn’t get much cooler than that.
Also, did I mention the suspense was aaaaamazing?