I finished three books in August, though Lonesome Dove is a sprawling tome that I spent a lot of time with.
The second of Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker trilogy gave me more of what I wanted, though it is also a book that feels kind of jagged at times. It starts right as the last book left off, with Cat and her cousin Bee wanted by powerful Cold Mages and needing somewhere to turn. Each apparent place of safety quickly turns dangerous for them. About a third of the way into the book, the setting and circumstances change, turning focus in a new direction and opening up more of the world.
A mishap in the spirit realm separates Cat and Bee, with Cat ending up across the world in the Caribbean. She escapes from an island of lepers/zombies and meets up with Vai, her erstwhile husband. While their relationship grows, she also tries to work out how to save her cousin from an imminent threat and soon starts to conflict with the war hungry General Camjiata.
The jaggedness I mentioned is in how it transitions from the early book to the middle book to the late book. How the situation and problems that Cat faces constantly changes without resolving. This is not a book with a plot that flows seamlessly. It is a book that gets where it needs to go by seeming brute force. That’s too harsh; this isn’t the smoothest ride, but it gets where it needs to go.
What worked much better for me in this book is that it slowed down enough to let me feel like I was gaining an understanding of the world and of characters other than Cat. It shuffles out the old setting for a new one, with a population with a frustrating to read dialect, but it also presents a clearer picture of the world and how magic affects that world and works within it. It also presents a host of new characters who have time to develop since this book stays in one place for long enough for that to happen. It also deepens the relationship between Cat and Vai, actually giving that some time to develop. This book felt like it gave me more of what I wanted than the first book did, while keeping the things I liked about that book.
This is a bleak, beautiful western epic. It is not a complex story. Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call are two retired Rangers who run a cattle company near the Mexican border. Call does all the work and McCrae spends most of his time sitting on the porch drinking whiskey. When an old Ranger friend of theirs blows into town with a plan to start a cattle drive up to unspoiled land in Montana, the two decide it is time for one last adventure. So they do.
The real draw of the book are the numerous interesting and well rounded characters the book introduces. Setting aside Call and McCrae for now, there are the other members of their Hat Creek company. There is Deets, the black man who is the best scout and tracker any of them have ever known. Pea Eye, the dim but reliable hand. Young Newt, an orphan raised by the company who doesn’t know who his father is and who faces the adventures with fresh eyes. McMurtry keeps introducing characters as he goes, from the enigmatic and philosophical cook Po Campo to the unfortunate and in over his head Sheriff’s deputy Roscoe. There is Lorena, the prostitute who forces her way out of Lonesome Dove to try to find a better life in San Francisco, only to be met with the cold unfeeling world of the west. Really, that is what all the characters are facing. I could go on with characters that are worthy of being remembered; this novel is just full of them and is not afraid to treat them ruthlessly.
It is also about the cold, unfeelingness of nature. The west, as described here, is beautiful and dangerous. Even old hands like Deets and Call are not completely safe; the inexperienced are always in peril. The world is a harsh place, and the people in it are not making it any less harsh.
In the end, Lonesome Dove centers on Call and McCrae. Call is all work and McCrae is all play. It is easy to like McCrae. He does some amazing things over the course of the book, but he never stops being an irresponsible layabout. Call is harder to like, harsh and unforgiving. You keep wanting him to finally come out from behind his walls, but by the end it becomes clear that there is nothing there. He will never be able to express any actual emotion. The truth is that Clara, McCrae’s lost love, has the best read on Call with her utter disdain for him.
Lonesome Dove is an amazing book. Definitely worth reading for any and everyone.
Gentlemen of the Road
I am a big fan of Chabon, but somehow this one slipped by me. I didn’t know it existed. So I bought a copy for some post-bar exam relaxation and I am glad I did. It is a short book, sticking true to its pulp inspirations.
Gentlemen of the Road follows two jewish bandits in the Dark Ages Middle East. Amram is a giant of a man from Africa, Zelikman is a spindly man from Europe. They travel around, running small cons and robbing. One evening they get a proposition to take Filaq, a fugitive prince who has had his kingdom usurped, to a nearby friendly kingdom. While they don’t agree to that plan, they are left with the prince and plan to turn him over for ransom to whoever will pay.
From there, they go on several adventures to try to get Filaq to safety or put him on his throne. Chabon uses very pulpy, very sparse prose. It can be poetic, but it mostly just tells the tale in as straightforward a manner as possible. It works to get the reader very close to its trio of heroes. Originally published as a serial, it feels episodic. Each section of the adventure has a beginning, middle and end. Things move fast and the excitement never lets up. It’s a lot of fun. It feels special to have this much skill and care to this kind of material.