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The White Road by Sarah Lotz

BOTTOM LINE: Intense and entertaining

Genre: Suspense & Thriller
Publication Date: 30 May 2017
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Synopsis from the Publisher:

“Desperate to attract subscribers to his fledgling website, Journey to the Dark Side, ex-adrenalin junkie and slacker Simon Newman hires someone to guide him through the notorious Cwm Pot caves, so that he can film the journey and put it on the internet. With a tragic history, Cwm Pot has been off-limits for decades, and unfortunately for Simon, the guide he’s hired is as unpredictable and dangerous as the watery caverns that lurk beneath the earth. After a brutal struggle for survival, Simon barely escapes with his life, but predictably, the gruesome footage he managed to collect down in the earth’s bowels goes viral.

Ignoring the warning signs of mental trauma, and eager to capitalize on his new internet fame, Simon latches onto another escapade that has that magic click-bait mix of danger and death—a trip to Everest. But up above 8000 feet, in the infamous Death Zone, he’ll need more than his dubious morals and wits to guide him, especially when he uncovers the truth behind a decade-old tragedy—a truth that means he might not be coming back alive. A truth that will change him—and anyone who views the footage he captures—forever.”

My Thoughts: The White Road is the quintessential summer blockbuster. Fast-paced and intense, it captures your attention and keeps you on the edge of your seat. The plot is intriguing as it explores the extremes people will go for adventure or sponsorship.  Set among the peaks of Mount Everest, the references to freezing temperatures keep you cool during the steamy heat of summer afternoons. Simon may not be the perfect main character, but he always remains honest to himself and to the readers. With a hint of other-worldliness that diverts you from real life, it makes for an exciting read that takes you to the highest places on Earth and some of the lowest – all while you sit poolside.

There are a few interesting avenues down which Sarah Lotz takes readers involving subjects most readers will never experience. The first is the area of extreme sports. Simon does not limit himself to just one of those sports. Caving, also known as spelunking, is vastly different from high-altitude mountain climbing, and Ms. Lotz brings readers along for both adventures. Simon’s experiences in the cave are not for the faint of heart. The descriptions of smaller-than-coffin-like tunnels, abrupt cliffs, the true dark, and the constantly running water all make for a scene that would fit right in with a torture movie. Adrenaline junkies will get a kick out of the abnormal twists and sharp turns required to maneuver through the caves and enjoy those moments Simon can only inch through a space using his fingers and toes as leverage. Other readers will shudder with claustrophobia as they confirm that caving is not for them.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are those scenes that take place on Mount Everest. There again, Ms. Lotz’s descriptions put you at the heart of the action. She is so thorough in those passages that you begin to feel the cold creeping into your bones no matter how hot it is outside as you read. Her narrative is so compelling that you will find yourself looking up pictures of the various locations on the mountain Simon experiences so you can learn even more about the vista he sees and the death-defying climbs he experiences. As with the caving scenes, adrenaline junkies will be anxious to sign up for the next summit attempt, while those less inclined to extreme sports will only shake their head at wonder.

The other avenue Ms. Lotz explores is making a website profitable. Book bloggers alas know almost nothing about this so it was fascinating to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the work entailed to get the views that brings the sponsors/advertisers that brings the money. Just as the mountain climbers were willing to push themselves to extremes to gain corporate sponsors, Simon and his friend find themselves throwing morality to the side in order to attract viewers. In both instances, Ms. Lotz hints at having to give up something in order to gain what you want. She is not overt in her messaging but rather sets up the topic in a way that encourages dialogue among readers.

The remainder of the story gets a bit lost behind the grandeur of the Himalayas and confinement of the Welsh caves. Simon is a troubled character but not one that encourages sympathy. His dubious morality at the beginning of the story almost encourages feelings of vindication towards his struggles at the end. At the same time, readers might find themselves frustrated with the lack of answers regarding what Simon truly sees in the cave and on the mountain. This is another area that encourages discussion as every reader is going to have a different take on what he sees and why.

The White Road will make for a great book club selection given its many areas open for discussion left by Ms. Lotz. It also makes for a great summer read as it takes you to places you most likely will never experience all from the comfort of your home. Simon is complex and real even though the setting is the true standout character of the novel. Very little can compete with the harsh climate of Mount Everest or the damp confines of caves. For that experience alone, The White Road is a worthy read.

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