I will tell you that I was not expecting much from the cover blurb by Publishers Weekly. For something to be touted as "one of Christian fiction's best novels of the year", often there is much beating of Bibles involved and at least one conversion.
This book has one offscreen conversion, by a minor character, and a Bible takes a wild boar's tusk.
I knew, from reading the back cover, that some kind of major Indonesian conflict was going to send Our Intrepid Heroes into the jungle. I admit to a dearth of personal knowledge regarding Indonesian politics. I suspect the characters would have as well, prior to their ill-fated trip. Cori -- properly Coralie, which is so very pretty and therefore Not Her -- sees this mission trip, to build a church and teach the locals about Christianity, as a way to escape her personal problems. Hints are dropped regarding conflict in Ambon, but it appears unlikely to reach poky little Seram until... it does reach Seram.
McKay doesn't shy away from her subject matter. We get to know characters who are subsequently killed, and Cori holds one of them as he dies. The adults aren't perfect by a long shot. All right, they're useless for most of the story. Mani (Manuel), a resident of Seram who is seventeen, ends up leading Cori and her fellow mission workers to safety, along with his baby sister Tina (Christina).
Everyone's character is well-explored during the trip. Mark, the "baby" at fifteen, is believably bratty, but he also provides a hit of humour at the direst moments. Drew, who Has Issues, also handles the trauma worst, but there's hope she'll weather it through her connection with stoic (I hate this word) hunk Brendan. Elissa, starry-eyed and romantic, uses her upcoming wedding to Colin to get herself through. Kyle is somewhat changeable, with a chip on his shoulder and a shaky grasp on faith, yet it is Kyle to whom Cori connects, Cori who has been uprooted from homes she loves twice to move continents, Cori in need of security but unsure she will find it in Maryland with boyfriend Scott (the conversion). Mani is more than a convenient native; I mean, he's useful, but he's also someone about whom the group -- and I -- come to care very much. He's just seen his parents die. He nearly lost his sister in the same killings. His village is gone. Yet he believes that God will deliver him and his funny new family.
Mani's knowledge is by turns awesome and absolutely necessary. The adults in charge of the mission group very stupidly took the antimalarial prophylaxis to Ambon when they went to get help for a potential case of appendicitis. In the chaos, nobody thinks to mention this until Mark actually gets malaria, at which point Mani whips out some papaya leaves and turns them into tea. The leaves contain quinine, which is also antimalarial. He also teaches the group how to cook rice using hollow bamboo, turns slothlike creatures into stew with a "bing!" on the head (I'll cop to giggling) and notices, before anyone else, that a log is not a log. It's a python. The group does not discard him once he has delivered them to safety; the group is aghast at the thought of leaving him and Tina, and mourns when they must leave Jakarta without either.
Along the way, more sectarian violence becomes apparent. This is handled in such a way that blames both sides for the war, though McKay appears to come down a bit more on the "Christians getting the short end of the stick" side. Well, look at the genre. At one point, in order to gain safe passage through a town, the group becomes "journalists". That's when Cori finds her purpose in this mess. She's been documenting the trip. Now she turns her camera on the atrocities committed by both Christians and Muslims, and others in the group conduct interviews. Cori comes to consider that camera her most prized possession. She'll give Mani the ring and chain Scott gave her, to sell so Mani can get himself and Tina to safety, but when the embassy asks for her camera and film, she has to work on trusting them to do what's right with it.
The group unwittingly echoes Médecins Sans Frontières' mission of témoignage, literally "testimony". Witnessing. They are witnesses and they cannot ultimately stand idly by. Yes, they have had Montezuma's Revenge. Yes, they have had malaria. Yes, Kyle was charged by a wild boar and Cori took a fall that cut her pretty badly and the lot of them nearly drowned crossing to Ambon -- and the camera, and the message, are still the most important part.
Cori as narrator takes us through PTSD, and I don't like that her psychologist admonishes her for "sliding toward depression", as there are better ways to handle that aspect of trauma, but I do like that what Cori does is continue to be a witness. I love that instead of a pat romantic ending with either Kyle or Scott, Cori chooses a future in journalism and a return to her native Australia to study it at university. I love that Mani and Tina do find their way to safety, first in a refugee camp and then in the homes of the adults who were running the mission project. I like that there was a hustle to get them out of the camp, too; Cori thinks, well, refugee camp, not as bad as what they escaped, but the adults seem to know that a camp is little better than before.
I can't give it a wholehearted five stars, because this is not joining my canon, but I think it's an important book for starry-eyed mission-tripping teens to pick up. I think they need to know that humanitarian aid is more than a summer abroad. Terrible things happen to innocent people, even people who have nothing to do with the conflict (witness the recent death of an AP photographer in Afghanistan). I think if the God Squad I knew in high school had read it, perhaps they would have come away humbled. This is impossible without a TARDIS, but McKay's novel has come in time to educate a new cohort. Let it change them for the better.