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A Really Cold Mountain 

Debut novel of Alaska is a marvel

When Charles Frazier's debut novel, Cold Mountain, was published in 1997, it soon became a marvel: a popular best-seller that combined literary pedigree and page-turning delight. Now Liam Callanan's The Cloud Atlas arrives with similar attributes, if not the guarantee of future Miramax riches.

Its author, as Frazier was seven years ago, is largely unknown. Its setting is a time of devastating war -- in this case, World War II instead of the Civil War. Its plot combines adventure, romance and constant tests of faith. And, like Cold Mountain, it's not to be missed.

Louis Belk is a 73-year-old priest in Bethel, Alaska, whom the Catholic Church, concerned about his age and remote residence, is trying to force into retirement. The thought of leaving Alaska haunts the old priest.

While keeping a bedside vigil for Ronnie, an Eskimo shaman and sometime rival, at the Bethel hospice, Belk begins recounting the adventures that led him to Alaska 55 years earlier. Over the course of three days, his narrative unravels a heart-wrenching war experience, and concludes with a stunning revelation.

Belk served in Anchorage during the waning months of World War II, sent, at age 18, as part of a mission to defuse balloon bombs. The Cloud Atlas hangs on a rarely mined piece of history: The 10,000 hydrogen-filled, bomb-carrying balloons sent across the ocean by Japan to terrorize American civilians. Made of rice paper, the balloons resembled tiered wedding cakes and, when activated, carried a deadly force capable of scattering debris a quarter-mile on impact. Very few of the balloons made it to Alaska, much less the lower 48 states, but at the time, military officials feared widespread panic if Americans learned of their existence or, worse, encountered them.

Now, in a series of gripping flashbacks, Belk makes a personal confession that is a harrowing tale of deception, myth and tragedy.

Soon after he lands in Anchorage, the young bomb specialist meets his new commanding officer, Captain Gurley, a sadistic bundle of nerves and cruelty, at a local tavern. Gurley is desperate for compelling evidence of the balloons' menace, so he asks Belk to invent evidence and theories supporting such notions.

At the same time, both men fall in love with Lily, a local Yupik Eskimo fortune teller with unusual powers of perception, who works out of a rundown hotel in Anchorage. Lily also carries unbearable emotional scars.

Callanan offers just the right blend of native legend, military intrigue and back story throughout the novel. His knowledge of the Japanese balloon bombs and Alaskan culture and terrain are impressive, but never intrusive, and the rugged terrain of Alaska becomes a character in itself. Belk offers a vivid example when he follows Lily into the woods on a summer evening:

We kept climbing through the forest, ever more thick, well past the point I would have ever ventured alone. Even in the short time I'd been in Alaska, I'd heard stories of guys wandering off for a weekend of camping and drinking and encountering all sorts of animals and trouble. Favorite stories involved run-ins with bears. I don't think every guy who had a bear story had actually seen one, or if they had, that they were as large as described. The way you knew they were telling the truth? They didn't talk about teeth or eyes or the sound of a roar -- they talked about smell.

Alaska, as always, remains, both forbidding and enticing.

"I've heard it said that a percentage of Alaska's population is always fleeing something -- the authorities, spouses, children, civilization," Belk says by way of introduction. "By comparison, I have it easy. It's just a couple of old priests hunting me, and I know them both. I could take them if it came to that, and it won't."

Ronnie, the shaman, fades in and out of consciousness as Belk recounts his final military mission, one created by Gurley and Lily for the three of them. In the end, the lifelong spiritual pursuits of both Ronnie and Belk are explained by unexplainable events from those long-ago war days, and the story concludes with shattering, and satisfying, clarity.

Callanan is a mesmerizing new talent. This heavenly debut means he must also bear the heaviest of literary labels: that of a promising young writer with, yes, enormous potential. If The Cloud Atlas is any indication, Callanan will have little trouble finding his way.

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