REVIEW: First Descent by Pam Withers

REVIEW: First Descent by Pam WithersFirst Descent by Pam Withers
Published: Tundra Books (2011), Paperback, 268pg
Genres: Adventure, Contemporary, Fiction
Source: BEA 2011


Montana-born Rex loves nothing more than to take his kayak out on a river, the faster and more powerful the better. When he gets the opportunity to tackle the well-named El Furioso in southwest Colombia, he is thrilled. He anticipates the river’s challenges, but finds himself in a situation where the real danger is human.

In Colombia, he meets Myriam Calambás, an indígena, who has lived along the El Furioso all her life. Though she loves its rushing waters, she dreams of leaving to get an education so that she can help her people. Her dreams, and her very survival, are in the balance when she and Rex are caught up in the clash between paramilitaries, working for rich landowners, and guerillas, who are supposed to be protecting the poor.

Pam Withers’ skill at writing about extreme adventures combines with a compelling story about an endangered world and a people struggling for their very right to exist. (from Amazon)

Buy on Amazon | Goodreads


I picked this up from Tundra Books at BEA 2011, lured by the bright red ARC cover. This book, I thought, looks hardcore. This book looks exciting and interesting and like it’ll punch me in the throat with awesomeness.

The actual cover is fine, but I’m really fond of the stark design of the ARC cover (not that it’s properly a design). It doesn’t give you any hints as to the story or the writing or what’ll happen when you read the book, and I like that. Gives the experience of reading First Descent an extra kick of excitement– or am I the only person who likes to go into a book not knowing anything about it but the title?

Anyway, to be honest the first chapter or so of First Descent threw me off. I didn’t like the dialogue, which felt stilted and unreal, and I didn’t like the “voice” of Rex, which also didn’t feel lifelike. I stuck with it, though, because I was hoping it’d get better once the story moved to Colombia. It did, thankfully, and luckily also the character voices got less stiff and more enjoyable to read. The story also started getting more exciting and fast-paced, and by the end I was flipping pages so hard I nearly ripped them a few times– that’s how much I needed to find out what happened next.

By around chapter three a new character was introduced: Myriam. Myriam is one of the best heroines I’ve found in a YA novel! She has so many layers and depth and she’s strong without being impossible, and basically she’s what I wanted Lola to be. Best of all, Myriam never becomes Rex’s mother or his consciousness, and I think she only has to tell him he’s being ridiculous a Western White Dude maybe once.

I liked that First Descent never turned into “educate the white man about his stupidity.” It’s more like “hey, did you know this horrible stuff was going on?” and “maybe you should think more about the world beyond yourself.” Myriam and her family weren’t tropes or stereotypes; they were fully fleshed-out characters who were just living their lives as best they could.

The changes Rex went through were really organic– because he spent time with Myriam’s people but also because he finally got away from his grandfather’s poisonous influence. I think it also helped that he wanted to change himself as well, that he didn’t want to stay the same ignorant person he was in the beginning of the book. Willingness to both listen and to alter your worldview when needed are two important things I think a lot of kids need to learn about, and First Descent tells them that in such a way that it never felt like preaching. Which is great, don’t you think?

So, despite the fact that it started off a bit rough, by the time Myriam showed up I was hooked hard. The plot is exciting and fast, but it slows down when something important (emotionally and otherwise) happens. The pacing is fantastic, basically, and I love how First Descent doesn’t skip over emotional development or, well, emotions in general!

The only downside is that Rex’s dialogue and “voice,” while better after that first chapter, never entirely felt real. His family has the same problem, which is weird because Myriam and her family did feel real. It might just be a literary technique that I don’t mesh with (to highlight the differences between cultures/peoples?), but it did bring down my enjoyment of the book quite a bit.

On the whole, however, I really liked First Descent. I liked the story and Myriam and the meshing of adventure and emotions, and the emphasis on increasing global awareness. I wish Rex’s voice had been a bit smoother, but overall I think this is a great book and I’d definitely recommend it.

Read: May 27, 2011

I’ve seen some people posting reviews for BEA books already, so I figured it was sort of okay to do that? And since I really liked this book I figured I should just go ahead and post my review. I’ll put up reminders about it’s release closer to the actual pub date!

I think this is the first book I’ve read that focused on kayaking. Definitely the first YA book, anyway! Kayaking seems like such a hard thing to do; I’m already scared enough of the water, so I definitely wouldn’t be able to do any hardcore sports on it!


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