Stranded by Renee Miller
Stranded was a friend recommendation, and, as it comes from the talented Renee Miller, I jumped at the idea.
Since I’m going to be whiny and picky on a few items, let me summarize by saying that this is a quick, entertaining read, is well-written at the technical level, and is well worth the price (times a million if you get this on Kindle Unlimited, where it is currently “free” in that Amazon sort of way).
By quick, I mean flat-out short, like, novella short. Some people really dig that. I appreciated it as an alternative to dragging things out, but fewer words equates to less exposition, and Miller has the skill to make that work if she had wanted to (and should have).
Okay, time to be really shallow! The cover depicts what I took to be a rather friendly-looking coyote with a huge head. The story reveals, in time, that this is somewhat applicable to the chief antagonistic force/monster, but the cover seems jovial, so I was thinking… maybe satirical, maybe fantastical…? Anyway, the cover is fine, but don’t let it shape your expectations. The book is relentlessly dark, bleak, humorless, and (literally) cold. Nothing wrong with any of that, but the cover doesn’t match the curtains.
Plot? Remember, this is short, and the plot reflects that in its simplicity. Three couples (male-female pairs) are sent to survive for a month in game-show fashion on a deserted, freezing Canada/Alaska island. It’s suggested it (the show) will be a bit like The Hunger Games, but, thank the elder gods, this never gets off the ground.
The producers and film crew and so forth are sleazy and money-hungry and fame-chasing egomaniacs, and several of the contestants are difficult to like, also. If I can be a jerk, I’ll say I didn’t care about anyone making or being spared from the death list. This is a problem I find pretty common in hurried slasher-horror works (book or film) frequently. It leaves the viewer with little to root for other than the horrific demise of… everyone? When nearly everyone “deserves” to die, much of the interest and reader tension are lowered.
Another issue for me was generic naming. Yeah, it’s weird and sometimes a spoiler when one or two characters are Aloysius von Burton and Ephresia Mae, but the names here tumbled into the same problem as universally unlikable characters. Oh no, Rob (or was it Mike? Max? Alex? Jim?) is going to get it in the neck! Again, in the real world, generic names are a thing. But here, especially where so much is stripped away, legitimately, by the plot (the characters get the same barren terrain, the same uninteresting food, identical shelters and stoves, identical clothes, etc) the names and backstory and any quirk of physicality is all you have to go on as a reader. Unless you just want a splatter show with resets to mannequins.
I’d be happy with that, but Miller very clearly has more talent than this. I wanted to remember which was Max and Alex (or whatever). This inability was unfortunate primarily because several of the quickly-drawn backstories were quite interesting, and what could have been higher-impact moments of interaction, discussion, betrayal, or loss got mixed around into one big slasher salad. I should say that I was crushed for time and read this super-short book over a period of many days, so this “complaint” is possibly invalid for a single-sitting airplane read.
Finally, and I felt somewhat less forgivably, while this happens in real life (too), a number of flat-out silly things are said and done. This gets into spoilers, so I won’t, but I’m talking physics and psychology here. Because it’s not “real” and anything goes, I can forgive a wendigo humping a moose (that’s not a spoiler, that’s me being weird). What is harder to forgive is… oh, if a game show contestant… dies, let’s say… there would be certain protocols, or one would hope. The reason is given, and sort of works, but it’s a bit clunky. Another example: a doctor would probably know about, say, hypothermia? A cop might… mention anything cop-like? Anyway, minor details, but missed opportunities in places, I felt.
And that was all me being mean, and it’s easy to “miss” these complaints because this is a short book and is thoroughly enjoyable when read as sport. If you want to see idiots get their comeuppance, you definitely get that. Miller delivers really, really well on a fast-cut, bone-chilling novel that is “camping in the woods” except: tundra.
She also does a truly excellent job at never forgetting the harsh environment of wind and cold—you’ll get goosebumps at the beach (in July) from some of the descriptions.
Miller has real chops, and I’ll be reading her next work without hesitation. The best thing about room for growth is seeing an author continues down their path, learning and improving.
As a recommendation: details are few on this just yet, but it looks like Licking the Devil’s Horn will combine Stranded with two other short works, including the short story “Cats Like Cream” (which is fantastic). You’ll enjoy extending your stay with Miller and saving a few bucks on the combo, so pick that up as soon as it’s available.