ARC Review: “Breathless” by Amy McCulloch

breathless book cover from goodreads, background photo snowy mountains by wilfried santer on unsplash
Original background cover photo credit: Wilfried Santer on Unsplash. Book cover from Goodreads.

Breathe, Cecily.
Cold air filled her lungs. It was strange. When she’d pictured breathing up here, she’d assumed it would feel like suffocating. Choking. Maybe, in a way, like drowning.
But it didn’t.

Breathless, Prologue opening

Author: Amy McCulloch
Publication Date: May 3rd 2022
Publisher: Anchor Books
Genre: Mystery/Thriller
Find it on: Goodreads

Many thanks to the author, Amy McCulloch, and publisher, Anchor Books, for providing a digital ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Synopsis

A high-altitude thriller that will take your breath away–Cecily Wong is on her most dangerous climb yet, miles above sea level. But the elements are nothing compared to one chilling truth: There’s a killer on the mountain.

Journalist Cecily Wong is in over her head. She’s come to Manaslu, the eighth-highest peak in the world, to interview internationally famous mountaineer Charles McVeigh on the last leg of a record-breaking series of summits. She’s given up everything for this story–her boyfriend, her life savings, the peace she’s made with her climbing failures in the past–but it’s a career-making opportunity. It could finally put her life back on track.

But when one climber dies in what everyone else assumes is a freak accident, she fears their expedition is in danger. And by the time a second climber dies, it’s too late to turn back. Stranded on a mountain in one of the most remote regions of the world, she’ll have to battle more than the elements in a harrowing fight for survival against a killer who is picking them off one by one.

From Goodreads

Review

Book Content Warnings: racism, misogyny, attempted sexual assault, alcohol abuse

Breathless by Amy McCulloch is an upcoming adrenaline-filled mountaineering thriller packed with technical big mountain climbing and foreboding, deadly chills. Main character Cecily is a young journalist who gets the break of a lifetime – the chance for an exclusive interview with renowned mountaineer, Charles McVeigh. But this privilege is contingent on scrapping together funds for a trip to Nepal as part of his small hand-picked team, AND she must summit the eighth-highest mountain in the world, which sits at a dizzying 8,163 metres above sea level. Although she’s self-proclaimed to be cursed by an inability to summit previous mountains, Cecily is determined to push herself to every limit for this opportunity. Once on the mountain, however, more than the natural threat of the mountain looms over the group. The culture of mountaineering trust is fractured and no one is safe on this terrifying bid for the summit.

Seven virtual strangers thrust together for the next month, attempting to climb one of the biggest and most dangerous mountains in the world. Cecily could only hope she was ready.

Breathless, chapter 2

This was a fantastic mix of mountaineering, survival, and possible killer-on-the-loose themes. Most of the book focused on the preparation and technical climbing portion of the mountain adventure, which highlighted the light and collaborative group atmosphere. In these parts we learn a lot about mountaineering as a sport. There’s abundant information about high-altitude dangers like HACE, or high-altitude cerebral edema, descriptions of the critical role Sherpas play, and scenes depicting characters using mountaineering equipment such as fixed lines, ice axes, oxygen tanks, and the like. Charles McVeigh is described as an ‘alpine-style’ climber, which is another term explored in the book. This means he’s a ‘purist’ and climbs unassisted, without the use of support such as ladders, porters, supplemental oxygen, etc. ‘Alpine style’ is contrasted with ‘expedition’ or ‘siege’ style climbing, which allows for the extra safety/assistance and is what Cecily and a couple others on the trip choose. Learning about all the mountaineering terminology was fascinating and made the book informative as well as entertaining!

There, in front of her, was Manaslu. The peak stood out, its enormous bulk an ominous black mass against the sparkling night sky. It dominated the horizon, stretching up into the heavens, and the summit wore the stars like a crown.

Breathless, chapter 7

Every so often, though, the positive mountaineering scenes were punctured by a scattering of chilling events. Not only is there an unfortunate, unusual death at the kickoff of the journey (dismissed as an accident), but Cecily is plagued by a haunting whistle in the middle of the night only she seems to hear. With high altitude hypoxia an ever-present threat and her concerns dismissed by the experienced group leader, Cecily wonders whether she’s succumbing to HACE-induced paranoia or if her fears are legitimately founded.

Structurally this book progresses in straightforward, natural time order with very few flashbacks. Every few chapters readers get a short article written by Cecily from on the mountain as if to send off to her boss for publication (internet access permitting). I enjoyed the mixed-media style this introduced and found the articles were an excellent way to express both Cecily’s proficiency in her field as well as another view of her inner dialogue. Of the non-article style chapters I consistently found each chapter ending had a bit of juicy bait that encouraged you to rush headlong into the next one. It was so easy to keep flipping the pages and speed through this book! Pacing and accompanying atmosphere were also fantastic and felt very natural. The tension builds gradually and reaches an apex as the team gets closer to summit day, then rapidly hits a series of heart-pumping twists as it races towards the end. Although I was able to predict the ending twist I wasn’t able to foresee all of it, so there were still things that caught me off-guard.

Why had Charles chosen her to write the article? Was it really because he’d liked her work? Or was it because he thought she wouldn’t be savvy enough tot ask the right questions? That she would be so overwhelmed with the experience of climbing the mountain that she wouldn’t probe into the controversies, the allegations?

To be fair, she hadn’t even known there were any controversies until she got there. All the research she’d done, all the previous press about him had been almost universally positive. The golden boy of the mountains.

Maybe he wasn’t so golden after all.

Breathless, chapter 21

I’d highly recommend picking up this book for anyone who enjoys survival or mountaineering-oriented thrillers! There’s an inescapable sense of impending doom that coats this book from cover to cover – both from the formidable natural power of the mountain itself and the unusual events that transpire. It’s a story of both human excellence and dark ambition, balanced on the peak of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Breathless will take your breath away! 🏔️🧗‍♀️

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