Book Review: Lone Women by Victor LaValle

Title: Lone Women
Author: Victor Lavalle
Publisher: One World
Publication date: March 28, 2023
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Historical fiction/horror/fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Blue skies, empty land—and enough room to hide away a horrifying secret. Or is there? Discover a haunting new vision of the American West from the award-winning author of The Changeling.

Adelaide Henry carries an enormous steamer trunk with her wherever she goes. It’s locked at all times. Because when the trunk is opened, people around her start to disappear…

The year is 1914, and Adelaide is in trouble. Her secret sin killed her parents, and forced her to flee her hometown of Redondo, California, in a hellfire rush, ready to make her way to Montana as a homesteader. Dragging the trunk with her at every stop, she will be one of the “lone women” taking advantage of the government’s offer of free land for those who can cultivate it—except that Adelaide isn’t alone. And the secret she’s tried so desperately to lock away might be the only thing keeping her alive.

Told in Victor LaValle’s signature style, blending historical fiction, shimmering prose, and inventive horror, Lone Women is the gripping story of a woman desperate to bury her past—and a portrait of early twentieth-century America like you’ve never seen.

I’d never read anything by Victor LaValle until now, but how could I pass up a book that’s historical fiction, horror, and the story of a strong woman making her own way, all wrapped up into one story?

When we meet Adelaide, we know right away that something is very wrong… mainly because she’s in the process of burning down her house with her parents’ dead bodies inside. She leaves with a huge, heavy steamer trunk and sets off for a ship to Seattle, and from there, a train to Montana, where homesteader land is available to anyone who’s willing to live there.

Adelaide craves solitude, a fresh start, and freedom from the dire secret that’s haunted her family her entire life. Her old home in California was a farm close by other Black farming families, but even among people she felt a kinship with, there was a distance — rumors flew about her and her parents and the family’s strangeness.

Montana isn’t exactly the promised land, though. Adelaide’s homestead is barren earth with a primitive cabin, about 16 miles from the nearest town, the tiny Big Sandy. While she suffers through the shockingly cold and windy weather of her new home, where it’s not even winter yet, she also starts to meet some of the other “lone women” nearby, and forms tentative first connections.

But Adelaide’s secret — and her locked steamer trunk — are never far from her mind, and keep her prisoner to her obligation to hide what she sees as her family’s curse from everyone nearby — for their own safety as well as hers. Meanwhile, there are other dangers as well — bandits who prey upon lone women, racist townsfolk who view conformity as the only virtue, and powerful town leaders who are intent on pushing out those who don’t abide by their rules and inflicting their own form of frontier justice whenever they deem it necessary.

Lone Women has violence and terror, but it also has remarkably strong women at its heart. Adelaide herself is wonderful, as are the other women she bonds with. It’s astonishing and admirable seeing her determination to survive, make her own way, and not give in.

The mystery of the trunk is unfolded slowly — and I won’t give anything away, but at a certain point in the story, I let out a very loud “OH!!!” when things finally became clear. Such an amazing reveal!

The actions of some of the townspeople represent the true horror of this story, and I loved how the frightening elements combine so well with the historical depiction, the character studies, and the fantastical elements too.

Overall, I loved Lone Women. The mood builds dramatically, the characters are distinct and memorable, and the resolution… well, again, I don’t want to give anything away, but it’s got a great ending!

Book Review: The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy by Megan Bannen

Title: The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy
Author: Megan Bannen
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: August 23, 2022
Print length: 336 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Hart is a marshal, tasked with patrolling the strange and magical wilds of Tanria. It’s an unforgiving job, and Hart’s got nothing but time to ponder his loneliness.

Mercy never has a moment to herself. She’s been single-handedly keeping Birdsall & Son Undertakers afloat in defiance of sullen jerks like Hart, who seems to have a gift for showing up right when her patience is thinnest.

After yet another exasperating run-in with Mercy, Hart finds himself penning a letter addressed simply to “A Friend”. Much to his surprise, an anonymous letter comes back in return, and a tentative friendship is born.

If only Hart knew he’s been baring his soul to the person who infuriates him most – Mercy. As the dangers from Tanria grow closer, so do the unlikely correspondents. But can their blossoming romance survive the fated discovery that their pen pals are their worst nightmares – each other?

This Western-tinged fantasy novel about undertakers, marshals, and drudges (the undead) includes romance, the classic enemies-to-lovers trope, old and new gods, and so much more. The biggest surprise for me? It actually brought me to tears at one point! (And this is not an easy feat… I’m afraid I’m more of a hard-hearted cynic when it comes to tugging-on-the-heartstrings moments, as a general rule).

The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy is set in the town of Bushong, on the border of the sealed, people-less area known as Tanria. In this frontier town, undertakers do a booming business, as more and more people attempt to cross into the forbidden Tanrian wilds for profiteering opportunities — and often come back as corpses.

Within Tanria, untethered souls look for human bodies to inhabit, turning them into drudges, highly dangerous creatures that exist to kill. The marshals patrol Tanria and take down drudges when they find them, stabbing them through the appendix to release their souls, then bringing the bodies back to a border-town undertaker for death rituals (pre-paid, of course).

Fun fact: The human soul resides in the appendix. Now we know what that weird little body part is for!

Mercy’s family undertaking business is in dire straits when the story opens. After suffering a heart attack the previous year, her father is supposed to be taking it easy. Her younger brother Zeddie is expected to take on the mantle of running Birdsall and Son once he graduates from his training program… but Zeddie definitely has other ideas about what his future should look like. Mercy, on the other hand, loves the work and values the importance of carrying out the rituals and sending people on their way to their final rest with honor and dignity. But the undertaking business is a men-only affair, and despite having done the work for years, no one considers Mercy as the heir to the family business.

Meanwhile, there’s Hart Ralston, a demigod marshal who lives a lonely life, carrying out his grim trade and never allowing himself to get close to anyone. Four years earlier, when he and Mercy first met, they took an instant and deep dislike to one another (although I had a hard time understanding why, exactly), and nothing has changed in that regard in the years since then.

But things take a big turn when Hart writes a letter addressed to a “friend”, assuming it’ll just get lost out in the world somewhere. Due to magical mail deliverers (it’s a thing), however, the letter ends up with Mercy, who writes back. As their anonymous correspondence continues, Hart and Mercy unknowingly forge a connection that’s honest and deep, never realizing that they’re writing to their self-proclaimed enemy rather than their “dear friend”.

Eventually, though, Hart and Mercy are propelled past their hatred and discover it’s a cover for strong attraction, chemistry, even love (although still without sharing the truth about their secret correspondence). They fall passionately and emotionally for one another, but since this is a bordertown and there are drudges to slay, life doesn’t give them much room to savor their new-found love before danger strikes and threatens to separate them… permanently.

There’s so much to like about The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy! I enjoyed the banter, the Western vibes, Mercy as a strong, talented, professional woman determined to save the business she loves, and the various friends and family members who create the background community for the main characters. (And don’t get me started on the talking, hard-drinking bunny and owl who deliver the mail…) Hart and Mercy are terrific together, and even though we’ve all read a gazillion versions of the enemies-to-lovers story, somehow it still manages to feel fresh here.

I do have quibbles when it comes to this book, and the biggest for me is the incomplete and confusing world-building. With its Western vibe, I pictured a dusty, dry setting originally, but the location actually seems to be water-based and set amidst an island nation. The marshals ride equimares (singular: equimaris), which appear to be some sort of amphibian horse… maybe? They’re not really described, although there are references to webbed feet and they seem to be very good in water. For vehicles, people drive autoducks, which (I think) are some sort of amphibious truck… maybe?

The undertaking business has its own mysteries. Bodies must be salted and wrapped in sailcloth, and undertakers also build boats for the remains (which I assume are kind of like coffins) — which are usually then cremated or sent to the burial grounds… I think?

There’s a lot of exposition about old gods and new gods, who they are, where they’ve gone, why Tanria exists, etc… but honestly, the information seems to get dumped in big chunks and it’s too much to really keep track of — although I did like the incantation describing the death gods, which we hear from Mercy as she prepares a body:

From water you came, and to water you shall return.

You shall sail into the arms of the Salt Sea, and Grandfather Bones shall relieve your body of your spirit.

The Warden shall open the door unto you, and the Unknown God shall welcome you into their home, where you shall know peace.

I should note here that I read this book as an e-ARC (via NetGalley), and it indicates that a map will be included in the finished book. Perhaps if I’d had access to the map while reading this book, I might have had a better grasp of the setting, at the very least, even if the terminology and gods/religion remained unclear. I hesitate to criticize the book based on something that may be better in the final version, but at the same time, I’m writing to express how I experienced this book, and for what it’s worth, the world-building was incomplete and confusing from my perspective.

I initially found the book slow and didn’t feel absorbed right away, but by midway through, this definitely changed. Hart and Mercy’s breakthrough from enemies to lovers is the turning point of the story, and from that point onward, I was hooked! Their dynamic is sweet, funny, and lovely, and I became very invested in their individual well-being and happiness as well as in their relationship.

There were moments when I thought my heart would break (remember, I did say earlier that this book brought me to tears!), but also moments of joy and delight. Overall, I’m very glad I spent time with Hart and Mercy, and enjoyed the book and its characters very much. If you’re looking for a very different sort of fantasy, this is one to check out.