The Wolf Road, by Beth Lewis

Elka has always done better in the woods, on her own, than in the middle of civilization. She didn’t get on with her nana when she was left there by her parents before they went north. Nana and people just had so many rules that Elka didn’t understand that it was almost a relief to be taken in by Trapper when she was seven. Before you get too cozy with this story of rough man and pseudo-daughter bonding, Beth Lewis has a bombshell to drop in the first chapters of The Wolf Road. The gruff Trapper has a dark secret: he’s a cannibal.

Elka’s world implodes one summer day. She’s been living with Trapper for about ten years when she has to make a trip into town by herself for the first time. In town, she meets Magistrate Lyon. Lyon is hunting Trapper, also known as Kreagar Hallet, who she knows killed her son and several women over the years. Lyon follows Elka back to Trapper’s cabin where they find indisputable evidence of his murderous hobby. After Lyon and her men burn the cabin down, Elka lights out north with a vague plan to find her missing parents, not get arrested, and not get killed by Hallet.

What follows is a tense, slow-burning chance all across a devastated, devolved British Columbia and Yukon Territory. Elka, after spending years mastering woodcraft, has to learn the hard way about who to trust and who to run from as fast as her legs can carry her.

The Wolf Road is one of the best tales of survival and justice I’ve read in a while. What sets it apart from similar books and what really won me over was the issue of Elka’s complicity. She doesn’t remember anything about Trapper’s crimes. For a long time, she thinks of Trapper as another of Kreagar’s victims. But as time goes on, memories of things Elka has repressed start to surface. Elka torments herself by worrying about what she did that she isn’t remembering and how much blame she bears for being Kreagar’s accomplice. The Wolf Road is not True Grit, though it bears some similarity to that novel’s setting and vibe. It’s more like The Reapers Are the Angels in that no one is truly innocent here. It’s just that some people are more guilty than others.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 5 July 2016.

The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt

Just to get this out of the way, I think this book has one of the best covers I’ve ever seen.

9850443Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers is a dark picaresque. The two brothers of the title, Charlie and Eli Sisters, are guns for hire that work for a mysterious man known only as the Commodore. We meet them just as they’ve been given another job, to track down a chemist and prospector named Hermann Warm. Eli, however, is starting to have second thoughts about being a killer.

The Sisters Brothers is set in 1851, mostly in the California territory. DeWitt tells the story in short chapters that read more like vignettes. The Sisters’ world is a violent one. Charlie in particular doesn’t mind using his guns to get his way when people don’t respond to his “reasonable” requests. Eli is more of a sensitive soul and on this trip, he starts to wonder why the Commodore sends them after people, why do they end up killing so many people, and maybe he could retire and set up a little shop somewhere.

The brothers track their quarry to San Francisco only to discover that their spotter has switched sides. Warm, it appears, has discovered an easy way to find gold in California’s rivers. Morris was supposed to just point Warm out to the brothers, but he went into business with Warm. Eli tries to convince Charlie that this might be their way out of the killing business.

Some other reviewers (on GoodReads) commented that they didn’t like the structure of the book because it meanders so much. But I think it works for this story. Reading it was like sliding into their lives for a few weeks. I enjoyed Eli’s narration and DeWitt’s snappy dialog:

“He describes his inaction and cowardice as laziness,” Charlie said.
“And with five men dead,” I said, “he describes out overtaking his riches as easy.”
“He has a describing problem,” said Charlie. (174*)

I had a great time reading this book. And not just because of the cover.

* From the Kindle edition.

The Outcasts, by Kathleen Kent

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 24 September 2013.

17333272I don’t believe the literary critics who say that the Western in dead. After reading genre benders like The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell and more traditional Westerns like Kathleen Kent’s The Outcasts, it seems to me that there’s still plenty of ground to cover on the old frontier.

The Outcasts opens on Lucinda, a prostitute at a crooked brothel in Texas. The morning we meet her, she’s trying to escape and fend of an incipient epileptic seizure at the same time. You’re on her side within sentences as the clever woman uses a key she copied to head out the door with a good part of the madam’s gold in her possession. Lucinda lays false trails as she heads for Houston to meet up with the man she believes loves her, in spite of her affliction. Kent also introduces us to neophyte lawman, Nate Cannon, who’s been assigned to work with two experienced Texas rangers to bring down multiple murderer, William McGill. Cannon et al. head for east Texas, on a collision course with Lucinda. It doesn’t take long to work out that their targets are the same man.

Lucinda, on orders from McGill, goes to Middle Bayou, near Galveston, to trace legends of a gold cache buried by Jean Lafitte. Once in Middle Bayou, she uses her wiles to locate the island with the buried treasure. It also becomes clear that Lucinda is far from the innocent that you might think she is. She is amazingly ruthless as she uses people to help the man she loves. But when McGill turns up in Middle Bayou to take possession of his treasure, Lucinda starts to doubt his love when he flirts with other women–especially a young naif named May. Kent also reveals, via Nate’s narrative, that Lucinda has ties to both of the older lawmen the young state policeman is traveling with. It turns out that the “personal reasons” the men gruffly admit to are very personal indeed.

When things turn nasty in Middle Bayou–as they must–Kent takes our protagonists to New Orleans for a thrilling climax. While there are elements of the traditional Western here–wronged women, revenge, pursuit by posses, etc.–Kent mixes them into a fresh story. Granted, I haven’t read many Westerns (especially the old pulpy ones). But the story that Kent gives us in The Outcasts makes think there’s a lot of life left in the old genre. After all, justice and revenge never get tired. Authors just need to look beyond the conventions and give readers a new spin.