There is a thing that you can do as an author to ratchet the tension up to 11 for me, right out of the gate. It's a pretty straightforward tool, but it works on me every time: tell me at the beginning of the scene how it's going to end. Straightforward, dirt cheap foreshadowing, the bluntest instrument in the toolbox.
Jane Steele used this to excellent effect, and Beth Lewis us using it to tear my heart into little pieces in The Wolf Road. "I wish now that I hadn't done that," or "I couldn't have known how wrong he was," or "I will always remember him that way." These little snippets that hint at what's coming get my adrenaline going--I am someone who has to pause the movie just before our hero peeks around the corner, to bring my blood pressure down.
Wolf Road starts off with a grand version of this, with a life-or-death confrontation between two characters that leaves one injured and trapped. We don't know who they are or why they are after each other, but it's very clear who the bad guy is based on who's got a scalp hanging from his belt. We know who wins that battle, and presumably the war.
Then we jump back in time and learn more about our narrator, Elka--about her ornery nature and her absent family and the strange world she lives in. The world itself is an important part of what makes this book so interesting--the setting is post-apocalyptic, but almost incidentally so. Elka lives in the woods, and her affinity with the land and dislike for people are a huge part of her personality and world view. The fact that it's not the 1800s but some unknown future date, after the Big Stupid, is something you glean from details like the existence of plastic and antibiotics.
It hardly matters--the book centers around the forest, and a gold rush, and it feels authentically old-fashioned. But people know better--ignorance looks different here than it does in history, which I think is important. The fact that Elka can't read is a surprise to people and an embarrassment to her. The fact that it feels like 1850 make the unique dangers of this landscape and its unique scars somehow more familiar than they would have been if they were new.
Did you read True Grit? That was an amazing book, all about the voice of the main character, full of wit and charm. Though the plot and tone are very different, that's the book that was called to mind here for me, because I loved Elka as much as Maddie. This was the book I wanted Vengeance Road to be, that it failed to be with its puppy love and noble savage and one-dimensionality.
This is a book about atmosphere, and about morality. It's a book about what makes people human, and what makes humans good. Elka meets a lot of people in her travels, and she judges them with her gut, trusting some and mistrusting others. And she is very frequently wrong, because she's not very good at people and their subtleties. But it never stops her, and she continues to take each person on their own merits. And she makes her judgements herself, not based on anyone else's ideas of right and wrong.
There's a great moment when someone she cares about greatly does something that she considers truly horrible. Elka has to walk away and spend hours thinking; in that thought, she realizes things about her friend and about herself, and she connects her friend's choice to her own feelings and choices, and when she goes back, she can say to her friend, "yes, I see now." It's such a small thing, but to include that moment--that thinking something through, looking at your first reaction and realizing it was wrong--to show that moment so clearly and beautifully just made this book perfect. Because this is just my idea of what it means to be human.