Title: Playing with Fire
Author: April Henry
Publication Date: January 19th, 2021
Summary: Natalia is not the kind of girl who takes risks. Six years ago, she barely survived the house fire that killed her baby brother. Now she is cautious and always plays it safe. For months, her co-worker Wyatt has begged her to come hiking with him, and Natalia finally agrees.
But when a wildfire breaks out, blocking the trail back, a perfect sunny day quickly morphs into a nightmare. With no cell service, few supplies, and no clear way out of the burning forest, a group of strangers will have to become allies if they’re going to survive. Hiking in the dark, they must reach the only way out―a foot bridge over a deep canyon―before the fire catches them.
Review: I haven’t read anything by April Henry before but I have heard her name in the thriller community a few times and the synopsis of Playing with Fire was intriguing and I couldn’t wait to get stuck in. The opening of Playing with Fire starts at 6:22 P.M. where a young man called Jason seems to be disposing of a getaway vehicle by setting it on fire although it doesn’t go to plan as he quickly manages to start a forest fire. This opening was gripping and very interesting as it seems like this novel is going to take place over a very short amount of time. We are then introduced to Natalia and Wyatt, co-workers and friends as Wyatt has convinced Natalia to come hiking with him. In this short scene we learn that there are forest fires all around because of the drought and Natalia has been in a fire before leaving her leg quite scarred, so you can imagine their surprise and horror when the trial they need to go through in order to get home is consumed by fire. By 7:23 P.M. the fire has cut off the trial so Natalia and Wyatt head back to the waterfall to see if they can get some reception on their phones to call the emergency services as they know there are helicopters dealing with other fires in the area and they also informs other on the trial about the fire not knowing that one of them is actually the person that started the fire. Natalia is terrified at this situation as she was in a house fire as a child that claimed the life of her brother and honestly, I’m hooked.
As we approach the ¼ mark in the novel, Wyatt manages to contact the emergency services who divert some helicopters but they also drop a note telling them that the fire is spreading and to head to Sky Bridge. The group now numbers nine as Wyatt explains that Sky Bridge is a wooden footbridge that spans the canyon and they have to reach it before the fire does. As they get moving, the find the family who tried to make it through the fire, the woman and child seem fine but the husband is badly burned and time isn’t on their side especially with night falling soon. Between Wyatt and Natalia, they are able to give Ryan some basic first aid before they set off for the bridge but Jason has left the group presumably so no one finds out what he has done. The group make it to Sky Bridge without many issues but they find a gate has been erected meaning they can’t access the bridge and they also catch up with Jason. The group isn’t in the best condition as Ryan’s burns need treatment, Beatriz’s feet are suffering and AJ suspects he is having a heart attack. While Natalia tries to deal with these issues a lot of the men are trying to create a gap at the bottom of the gate so they can squeeze through or bring it down entirely but it is slow work and the fire is catching up with them. However, Natalia when she inspects the gate is pushed by someone although no one saw anything and although she questions herself, I wouldn’t put it part Jason to have done it.
As we cross the ¼ mark in the novel, eventually the group manage to create a gap under the gate and AJ is fine, it was merely a panic attack but his reaction is completely believable especially if you’ve never had a panic attack before. However, we then jump back six years presumably to find out why Natalia is so afraid of fire and what really happened to her brother, Connor. We learn that six year before 11 year old Natalia was left to look after her two year old brother while her mother returned to the grocery store for something she forgot and Natalia was attempting to make dinner. Before we can actually see what happened we return to the present where the group have crossed the bridge but they face even more problems as they can’t use the one trial as it has been on fire for days but the second and only other options is a trial for experienced hikers. However, this is overshadowed when Susan goes missing and one of the others makes the connection between Susan’s behaviour and Alzheimer’s, they spend ten minutes looking for her and Natalia eventually finds her which is a relief but it isn’t much of one when they see the trial they are going to have to cross in the dark which includes canyons and cliff faces that most of them wouldn’t dare dream of crossing even in the day but they have no choice and have to continue on or they could be trapped on both sides by two different fires.
As we approach the halfway mark in the novel, as they walk over the waterfall cliff, they have to cross into order to progress down the trial Beatriz’s improvised shoes cause her to fall over the edge but Natalia, Marco and Darryl manage to pull her back only for Lisa to take a tumble over the edge. Luckily for her she lands on a ledge but she has dislocated her kneecap meaning she can’t get back up and the ledge isn’t wide enough for anyone else to go down. Natalia takes the lead and talks Lisa through putting her own kneecap back in place and soon they manage to get her back where Natalia makes an improvised brace for her so they can continue. We also learn more about Natalia’s past, after trying to cook pasta, she accidently sets her sleeve on fire and in her panic to put it out the curtains catch fire and it spreads from there. Natalia desperately tries to put it out despite it getting worse when she remembers that Connor was sleeping upstairs. She rushes to get to him hiding under his bed unconscious as the house rapidly fills with smoke. She dangles Connor out the window so he can breath as is partially trapped by a fallen piece of ceiling when the windows blow out waking Connor who struggles in Natalia’s grip and falls as she dives out the window after him. She wakes up in the hospital where she learns that her brother has died and she has suffered severe injuries and while her parents blame themselves, Natalia knew even then that it was her fault as she has carried that guilt for years.
As we cross into the second half of the novel, the group continue down the trial but they are quickly running out of stem. When a large tree blocks the trial, they have to climb over or under it but AJ gets trapped by a log that requires everyone’s help to remove but he is ok. By the time, they have put enough distance between them and the fire to rest, the begin to catalogue what supplies they have when they learn that Jason has been carrying around a large piece of jewellery before he flees after stealing some food. Natalia is the one to make the connection between Susan’s road flare and the cap she saw Jason throw away and the group assume he must have been the one to start the fire and because he thought Natalia knew he tried to push her off Sky Bridge and followed her when she went looking for Susan. Now the whole group knows what he has done, there is no telling what he might attempt to do to them now but he is outnumbered and he would need a method of disabling them like a gun in order to have any hold over the group but they don’t really have time to focus on it as there is still the issue of the fire. We must also remember some of the group aren’t up for fighting as Ryan and Lisa are injured, Susan isn’t in the best frame of mind, there is also a child present and members of the group like Zion can’t see without his glasses, so I have no idea where the story is going to go moving forward. After resting for a few hours, the group are rudely awoken by some bears passing through when Wyatt notices the wind is changing and is pushing the fire towards them so they have to get moving again. The wind is blowing the fire towards them very quickly and they are racing to stay ahead of it and reach civilization before it reaches them. However, Marco suffers a severe asthma attack due to the smoke and the exercise and Natalia has to use both of Zion’s EpiPen’s in order to stop it which means he is now without aid. As they begin moving again it soon becomes clear that there is also an issue with Zion’s grandfather which might hold them up and out them within the fire’s reach.
As we approach the ¾ mark in the novel, it turns out Darryl is diabetic and his blood sugar is crashing. The group work together to find him enough to food to get the back to civilization but the fire has now caught up with them and when a burning tree coming crashing down the hillside the group is split in two. The group containing Wyatt and Natalia race down to the lake that they have to swim across which is bad as Natalia can’t swim and Wyatt still has the baby strapped to his back but they make it and they meet up with the other group on the other side which buys them a small amount of time. As they have veered off their original route, the group decide it is best to help to the other trial where the other fire is and the far side, the side they are heading for has burnt out and it can’t burn twice but they encounter a log containing a beehive which Zion is allergic to and AJ crashes through it releasing them. Zion is having a really back allergic reaction to being stung and could be dying and Marco remembers that EpiPen’s contain more than once dose and then manage to take it apart and give Zion the does but it might be too late and if he dies here, I will be heartbroken as they are now so close to their destination and don’t have much further to go.
As we cross into the final section of the novel, Zion recovered and they make the final stretch of their journey where they once again encounter a bridge and Jason. The wooden floorboards of this bridge have burned away leaving only the steel frame but it is the only way across the canyon. After Wyatt disables Jason thanks to his broken collarbone and he cross the bridge will minimal effort since heights don’t bother him and he agrees to ferry everyone across the bridge one at a time. After he takes Natalia across first since she trusts him the most, she kisses him hinting at the relationship she has been thinking of when she wasn’t not panicking. However, while Wyatt is working out a way to get Blue the dog across, some happens that terrifies Natalia more than the fire they have been outrunning. When Lisa is crossing the bridge, her son tries to walk towards her and falls of the bridge. In slow motion almost, Natalia dives for him and catches him by the wrist mirroring the exact situation she found herself in with her brother although this time she isn’t a weak 11 year old year and together they manage to save the little boy. The epilogue was beautiful as we see everyone a year later where their journey began and we learn where their lives have gone since the events of the fire. Overall, Playing with Fire was your classic survival story with some very minor thriller elements, despite it having the conveniences you’d expect in survival stories that don’t end in tragedy and certain characters like Wyatt seeming a lot older than they actually are it was a quick and enthralling read that I would highly recommend.
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I received this copy for review consideration from Terminal Tours.