Not thrive. Imagine the peak of a mountain at the top of the world, after civilization has fled a deadly, mysterious plague and the planet has probably been flooded by rising oceans. The air is thin. Scrubby trees are more like bushes. Acorn cakes are a staple. Later in the book, Icelyn finds a comb Down Below and she marvels at it. Has she never brushed her hair? You’ll be amazed when you find out what ultrabears and ultralions are. Yes, Mountaintop is the kind of place that, should humanity survive, what’s the point? It’s clear this place is only half of the story. Almost immediately, Icelyn and Adorane wander beyond a rotting, three-hundred-year-old barrier between the apparent safety of Mountaintop and the rumored certain death of Down Below, and there is no doubt about where our heroine and her beau will end up.
But Latshaw keeps his readers guessing right along with the sheltered, pampered Icelyn. The mystery is compelling, even darn right frightening, and each revelation along the way is worth it, not rushed or predictable. In fact, every time I thought I’d figured it out—what the Threatbelows are, or how humanity met its fate, or even who Icelyn herself is—I was surprised by Latshaw’s imagination. He speaks through his vivid characters, some that I adored and others I’d like to choke, and the action happens in their choices, dialogue, and thoughts. Whether the cowardly Kith leader is squirming, the devoted and fearless Eveshone is rescuing Icelyn again, or the constantly shifting morals of Torrain are playing out, this world is revealed by those living in it.
My favorite part, however, is that Latshaw isn’t afraid to delve deeper than his own story. Though fantastical and unique, his world bears enough resemblance to ours to stoke fear and tickle conscience. Gun violence in Mountaintop mirrors the debate over our right to bear arms, especially when these fictitious leaders are using guns to proliferate fear and violence as a means to control the population. One of them has found an ancient text and quotes Jenny Holzer, “Fear is the most elegant weapon. Your hands are never messy. Threatening bodily harm is crude. Work instead on minds & beliefs, play insecurities like a piano.” Latshaw is good at turning a phrase to grab attention, and we find essential truths in gentle statements as well: “So much of life is lived looking away from each other, afraid to face a person as they really are, deflecting feelings and ignoring vital moments.” Or, not so gentle: “They live in a world of magic, but take it all as a matter of course. They didn’t realize it, but they were Gods.” This last is spoken of the extinct Apriori, when Icelyn sees their cellphones and flat screens in a memory. Gods who invented their own demise? Nervous laugher from the crowd…
The Threat Below would be equally enjoyed by both genders, with a strong, admirable heroine (feminine and regal, with very little whining) and plenty of action and violence (gruesome, though not gratuitous). Latshaw’s writing is top-notch, and teens ready to move onto more adult literature should be able to handle the language and the length of this book. Adults will love it just as much, because there are many layers of understanding in The Threat Below, sort of like a Disney movie that is fun for kids but only truly understood by their parents. Not that this book is an easy fairytale read, and don’t be looking for a sweet ending tied up in a pretty package. The journey is worth it, though, and you’ll love every step. Latshaw delivers beauty and hope in a way you’d never expect.