After two successful literary forays into the maelstrom of the 17th century Salem witch trials in Massachusetts, Kathleen Kent heads Wild West to the post-Civil War wilderness of the Gulf Coast.
Readers who revelled in Kent’s outstanding debut novel, The Heretic’s Daughter, and the gripping prequel, The Traitor’s Wife, can rest assured that the classy US author has not lost her impressive grip on the history of her homeland as she moves forward 200 years to lawless Texas.
But this is far from a gunslinging ‘cowboys and indians’ Western; instead Kent delivers a beautifully nuanced and passion-filled story about a disparate bunch of outsiders, each making their way in a frontier society in which opportunity – and crime – flourish amidst the barren terrain.
One is brutalised by his experiences, others seek revenge or closure, one is determined to hang onto his personal integrity and another is simply taking her chances in the cruel and capricious game of life.
Whilst the men, who operate both as law-breakers and law-enforcers, make a living out of violence, a young woman with a terrible physical affliction is prepared to put her life at risk in pursuit of love and financial security.
In 1880s Fort Worth, Lucinda Carter, armed with a pouch full of stolen money, heads for steamy Middle Bayou, near Galveston, to meet her lover after escaping the brothel where she has been a virtual prisoner.
Lucinda is wily, intelligent and courageous and the man she is scheduled to meet is as charismatic as he is ruthless. But he is the only lover she ever had who was not scared off by the epileptic seizures that set her limbs jerking and her mind ‘sliding towards blankness.’
He’s also a man who knows what he wants, will do anything to claim it and has formulated a plan to make them both rich. It involves chasing age-old rumours of buried pirate treasure and Lucinda’s role is to take up a teaching post and move into the farmstead of a Middle Bayou planter and his daughters.
Meanwhile, Nate Cannon, a newly sworn-in Texas policeman with a pure heart, a Baptist birthright and a strong sense of justice, has joined two veteran rangers on the trail of the notorious William McGill, a killer and robber who has mercilessly claimed the lives of men, women and children across the frontier.
The three unlikely hunters, each with their own ideas of justice and each hugging their buried secrets, form a close bond of loyalty and friendship as they track down McGill.
All the leading players are destined to meet but there is a high price to pay in the pursuit of wealth, payback… and justice.
Kent’s evocative and flawless prose draws a dazzling portrait of pioneering Texas with its desolate landscape and rich assortment of flawed characters who scratch out a living and battle to stay alive.
And amidst all this forbidding landscape, authentic historical detail and nail-biting suspense is the lovely, damaged Lucinda, a tough nut with a soft centre whose chutzpah hides a heart-melting vulnerability and subtle complexity.
Through a powerful narrative which alternates between Lucinda and Nate, Kent allows both the plot and the inter-connected relationships to unfold on a slow burn which explodes into a coruscating dénouement.
Some will die, some will survive and some will find more than they bargained for… let the adventure begin!
(Headline Review, paperback, £13.99)