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Aaron Vandiver
Under a Poacher's Moon

Adult; General Fiction (including literary and historical); (Market)

Anna Whitney travels to Mzansi, a remote safari lodge located deep in the wilds of South Africa, hoping to get as far away from home and her troubled life as possible. The perilous beauty of the land captures her imagination, but when she hears the haunting late-night cries of an injured rhino, her escapist fantasies collide with a brutal reality. She and Chris, a safari guide wrestling with his own secret demons, find themselves embroiled in a war on Africa's wildlife. They are pulled into a struggle that brings them face-to-face with shocking acts of violence, rogue officials, armed gangs, vicious wild predators, and their own deepest fears. It is a conflict that threatens to destroy them, or lead them toward a new and better life together.
Vandiver’s brief, tense debut novel concerns Anna Whitney, a New Yorker who goes on safari in South Africa to escape her own demons, but comes face-to-face with the demons that thrive in the seemingly idyllic wildlife preserve: poachers. One night, Anna hears the frightened cries of an injured rhinoceros, and with her safari guide, Chris attempts to save the rhino and its baby from poachers, despite her own doubts: “What the hell was I, an American woman with no knowledge of the bush, doing out here?” The poachers, desperate men unafraid of violence, pursue, and both Anna and Chris are forced to face their painful pasts head on in order to survive the night.

Under a Poacher’s Moon is a compelling, character-driven thriller that digs into Africa’s beauty and poverty. The novel is less than 200 pages, and Vandiver’s intense, compressed plot takes place over one night, but it’s alive with vivid descriptions of the African landscape and animals (“this terribly gorgeous specimen of muscle, sinew, teeth, claw, mane”) plus memorable characters. Vandiver, an attorney and conservationist, allows his cast a full range of humanity: Anna is complicated, touched by deep grief, and not always likable. Her relationship with Chris—a charmer who calls her a “rhino gal”—is believable and warm, growing naturally as they face life-threatening obstacles together.

While the story picks up once Anna finds the injured rhino, the opening pages get off to a slow start. As a white woman in Africa looking for an “escape,” Anna projects her own issues on the country, telling us, in her narration, that she wants Africa to remain “a refuge against all the ugliness and greed…that afflicted the rest of the world.” She envisions it as a place where she can recover from her trauma, instead of an actual place in its own right, which will be hard for some readers to stomach. Still, Vandiver’s complex story about the coexistence of animals and people will please animal and adventure lovers.

Takeaway: A woman and her tour guide take on poachers in a vivid story of conservation in South Africa.

Great for fans of: Pamela Beason’s Endangered, Mike Bond’s The Last Savanna.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: B
Marketing copy: A

Kirkus Reviews

"An American woman looks for adventure on safari and instead finds a passion for a cause in Vandiver’s debut novel.

Anna Whitney saw her marriage fall apart after an unspeakable tragedy that she can’t bear to think about. Since then, she’s made increasingly dangerous and reckless decisions, leading up to her current trip on a remote safari in South Africa. She finds herself drawn to the handsome guide, Chris, who has his own sad secrets. On safari, Anna witnesses great beauty in the form of elephants, rhinos, hyenas, black mambas, and others; throughout, Vandiver offers gorgeous descriptions of the African landscape, showcasing wildlife as worthy of respect and awe. Along the way, Anna learns about nefarious poachers who are causing great harm to local animal species. One night, Anna and Chris hear the horrible cries of an animal in distress, and they run out to find that poachers have attacked a rhinoceros mother and calf for their horns. Anna is filled with fury and a desire for revenge, so she and Chris head into the wild on a journey more dangerous than either could imagine. However, it turns out that not all is as it appears, and Anna will soon discover that assumptions can prove deadly. Vandiver has carefully and cleverly crafted a tale with an endearing and relatable protagonist. Over the course of the tale, the author not only draws on his experience and knowledge of the story’s landscape—he’s an attorney and conservationist—but also shows a great ability to delve into a varied range of human experience. He treats all his characters with notable empathy, effectively showing how one’s perspective is shaped by one’s choices and circumstances. This is not a straightforward good-versus-evil story, but it is a complex and engaging one.

An exciting and thought-provoking work that will stay with readers."