Completed 5/5/2020, Reviewed 5/5/2020
This was an exciting horror novel featuring a gay protagonist and a wendigo set in the American Frontier in 1799. In fact, it was so exciting I stayed up most of the night to finish it. It’s the second book of a series called “The Savage Land” though I didn’t realize it until I read up a little more on it afterwards. The main character of the first book is a supporting character in this book and the Firelands reads as a standalone novel very well. The prose is sumptuous without interfering with the movement of the plot. I don’t know if the gay experience is authentic for the time and place, as I doubt if there is any real record of it from that time period, but I found it believable. It also gives us some perspective of the Native Americans living near the white settlements, as well as that of a gay Native American. This book was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award for Sci Fi/Fantasy/Horror in 2005.
The plot follows Cole Seavey, a young trapper making his way through the Ohio territory. He’s attacked by a cougar which then appears to transform into a strange giant monster. Eventually Cole outruns it by making his way through a cave, then collapses. He wakes up to find himself having been saved by the Native American brave Pakim, and recovering in the bed of John and Palmer, two frontiersmen. He is near the town of Hugh’s Lick, where his elder brother settled. Upon recovering he finds that his brother is dead and has left a wife and baby. He vows to marry his sister-in-law, as is the custom of the period, but gay awareness has awakened in him because of his attraction to Prakim. In Hugh’s Lick, he finds that there have been other strange happenings which the locals blame on the Native Americans. But as the body count piles up, it becomes evident that something else is going on. They begin to suspect it is a wendigo, a demon of the northern tribes of North America that is created from the soul of a cannibal. Together, Cole and his compatriots try to find and destroy the wendigo while facing racism and homophobia from the townspeople.
I really liked the writing. The narrative is first person from Cole’s perspective. He’s well spoken. The book isn’t filled with “ain’t” and other colloquialisms. I don’t know how accurate that is, but it makes for very smooth reading. There are sex scenes in the book, mostly what you might call fade-to-black, and they are very romantic, but it doesn’t read like a standard romantic novel. That’s probably because of the underlying tension of Cole’s coming out process as well as the immediacy of the danger from the wendigo.
Cole is a very likeable character. He prides himself in being called Cold-Hearted Cole, but the book is about his coming to know himself and owning his emotions. He’s become a frontiersman because he generally doesn’t get along with people and he’s running out on the woman he’s supposed to marry. At the beginning of the book, he doesn’t realize he’s gay, he just knows he’s not attracted to women. But meeting Pakim, as well as John and Palmer, and the hunt for the Wendigo brings all his issues into focus. Pakim as his love interest is also very likeable. He himself is conflicted because he has a duty to his clan to bring forth children even though he is gay. And falling in love with a white person is of course not looked upon well.
The characters of John and Palmer are interesting as well. They were introduced in the first book, although they are well developed here as supporting characters. They live on the outskirts of Hugh’s Lick, keeping mostly to themselves while the townsfolk gossip about them. They are friends with Pakim and a Native American woman, Gwennie, who has been shunned by her people for being “white on the inside”. Gwennie is a pretty cool character, maybe a bit stereotypical as stoic and terse, but adds a certain amount of levity to the story without being offensive.
I give this book four stars out of five. It’s fun, engrossing, suspenseful, and makes you think. I didn’t give it a five star rating because of a twist at the end which I thought was a little bit of a let-down. However, after that, the suspense did recover and kept me going. Many of the books I’ve been reading are not well-known and most are out of print. Some are not even available in e-format. I got this one used, although it is also available as an e-book. Some of these books have been okay, some good, some great. This one falls in the great category.