The Hunger

Alma Katsu's The Hunger is billed as a tense and gripping reimagining of one of America's most haunting human disasters: the Donner Party with a supernatural turn. Rave reviews abound and I was expecting something akin to Dan Simmons' The Terror. Considering how much I loved that book, I had lofty expectations for this one.

Sadly, the paranormal element is minimal and decidedly half-assed. It could have been replaced by a simple disease and that would have been it. In the end, this novel is a quick and utterly forgettable read. If you're looking for an extremely light read for your upcoming summer vacation, The Hunger could be for you. Otherwise, though it is well-written, the weak plot and subpar characterization made this one a failure to launch.

Here's the blurb:

Evil is invisible, and it is everywhere.

That is the only way to explain the series of misfortunes that have plagued the wagon train known as the Donner Party. Depleted rations, bitter quarrels, and the mysterious death of a little boy have driven the isolated travelers to the brink of madness. Though they dream of what awaits them in the West, long-buried secrets begin to emerge, and dissent among them escalates to the point of murder and chaos. They cannot seem to escape tragedy…or the feelings that someone–or something–is stalking them. Whether it’s a curse from the beautiful Tamsen Donner (who some think might be a witch), their ill-advised choice of route through uncharted terrain, or just plain bad luck, the ninety men, women, and children of the Donner Party are heading into one of one of the deadliest and most disastrous Western adventures in American history.

As members of the group begin to disappear, the survivors start to wonder if there really is something disturbing, and hungry, waiting for them in the mountains…and whether the evil that has unfolded around them may have in fact been growing within them all along.

Effortlessly combining the supernatural and the historical, The Hunger is an eerie, thrilling look at the volatility of human nature, pushed to its breaking point.

As mentioned in the blurb, the historical backdrop for this novel is the Donner Party tragedy. It's evident that Alma Katsu did a lot of reasearch to get the details right. She embarked on a 700-mile roadtrip that followed the wagon party's route as closely as possible. This allowed the author to experience the terrain, the elevation changes, the weather, the oppressive openness, the loneliness, and the brutal indifference of nature to the needs of man. All of which helped her write an atmospheric narrative that captured the setting almost perfectly. Katsu also managed to convey the isolation, the anxiety, and the tension that plagued the Donner Party. In that regard, the author did a brilliant job.

What rapidly killed The Hunger was the poor characterization. Collectively, almost everyone involved is so dumb they make the crew of the starship in Alien: Covenant look like geniuses. It's not that bad at the beginning, but you quickly realize that most of the protagonists are not very well-drawn. Other than Charles Stanton, Tamsen Donner, and Edwin Bryant, the entire cast of characters was decidedly lackluster. Another problem is that for the most part, the protagonists' backstories are almost always more interesting than what is occurring in the present. This makes you long for the flashback sequences and care even less for what is transpiring as the Donner Party continues on its trek to California. And when mutilated corpses begin to appear, the fact that you haven't connected with most of the characters means that you can bring yourself to care about what is happening to them.

Little by little, I lost interest until I reached the point where I was just going through the motions of reading this novel. The pace is atrocious for about two thirds of the book. The Hunger is a relatively short work of fiction, but sometimes it felt as though I was wading through War and Peace. It gets better toward the end, as we finally get some answers. And yet, it was a case of too little, too late. Indeed, by then I couldn't care much for how Alma Katsu would close the show on this tale. Once again, revelations regarding the backstory of Charles Stanton turned out to be more engrossing than all the storylines that make up the book.

Given that we were promised an eerie supernatural reimagining of the Donner Party's fight for survival along the lines of what we saw in Dan Simmons' The Terror, the fact that the paranormal element was so uninspired and a bit contrived was a veritable deal-breaker for me. I'm not necessarily a big fan of historical fiction, so the mystical angle is what drew me to this novel. I would never have read The Hunger otherwise. Hence, this was a major disappointment for me and the main reason why I had a hard time getting onto it.

Still, I can appreciate how well-written and well-researched this book was. Fans of atmospheric historical fiction works who can overlook the weak characterization might enjoy it a lot more than I did. Personally, coming in expecting something similar to Simmons' The Terror in style, I felt definitely short-changed.

The final verdict: 6/10

For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe

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