In my desperation to convey to publishers that I want more American-set historicals, I buy everything that is published (and sounds "good") brand spankin' new. Especially when the publisher "takes a chance" on a debut author writing in that setting. When I first heard that Berkley was publishing Pieces Of Sky by Kaki Warner in trade paperback, I wasn't all that happy about it. It's hard enough getting readers to try a western, let's make it doubly hard by making them more expensive! However, after reading this debut novel, the first in a trilogy, I think it was a sound decision. But more on that in a minute.
Jessica Thornton has fled England under the weight of a terrible secret. With no one else to turn to, she makes the journey to America, in hopes of finding her brother, whose last known whereabouts were New Mexico. Life in a sheltered English country village certainly hasn't prepared her for the Southwest. The country is unforgiving, the heat is unbearable, travel is arduous, and everybody is so uncouth. Tops on the uncouth list is cowboy Brady Wilkins. The man is positively insufferable!
Brady ran into some trouble on his way back to his ranch, which is how he meets up with the stagecoach. He immediately takes delight in ruffling Jessica's feathers. Granted they don't see a lot of females out at their spread, but she's so unlike any woman he's ever met before. Then circumstances end up throwing them together, and they find themselves spending a lot more time together. Brady also learns that an old enemy, tied to a blood feud involving his ranch, is once again on the prowl, and this time he is desperate to do what he failed at last time. Namely, protect everything and everyone he holds dear.
I'll be brutally honest. When I'm reading westerns, I like my characters to be well...American. The English society miss in Big Bad America has never been a trope that has worked for me. So color me incredibly shocked that it works for me, and in a big way, here. By far and away the best part of this story is watching Jessica's transformation. The past she is running from is horrific, and while she starts out too-prissy-to-live, how she battles, thrives, and makes her way through the harsh New Mexican landscape is really wonderful reading. I adored this girl.
Brady is a stoic, Alpha western hero. A man tied to his land out of love and loyalty. A man who has essentially given up having his own life in the name of guilt and obligation. Determined to protect his brothers and employees, and still carrying the weight of a blood feud started by his idiot father, this is a man haunted by his past and not really living in the present.
However, it's not perfect.
The problem with this story is that it wants to be Lonesome Dove, and it's never given the chance. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the author has an earlier manuscript of this story stuffed in a desk drawer somewhere that's at least 200 pages longer. There's quite a bit (most of it involving the ranch feud) that takes place "off page" and at times I thought it undercut the conflict. That being said, I can't think of a single publisher or editor with enough cojones these days to publish a 600+ page romance novel. Sorry, they just don't exist (Diana Gabaldon, in my ever so humble opinion, does not write romance). So for this book to have been as long as it probably should have been, Warner would have to have taken a hacksaw through the happy ending and gone the "historical fiction" route.
Which she didn't. Bless her heart.
I do think this could be a Gateway Western for those historical romance readers who think they hate them. Jessica being English certainly helps. Also, this story has a great saga-like feel to it that hearkens back to the earlier days of the genre. That being said, also like the early days of the genre, this book is, at times, quite brutal. Brady makes choices I suspect many readers will take issue with, although I personally feel the author does a good job of explaining these choices. When a bitter, pointless (aren't they all?) feud encompasses your entire adult life, it's hard to not have that color your judgment. Also, while this is a romance novel, and we do get a happy ending, this is definitely an instance of where "bad things happen to good people." It's not all sunshine and roses for our characters. Period.
The ending is a little problematic, mostly because Brady is a moron - but Jessica saves the day by calling a spade a spade - or in this instance telling Brady he's an idiot. I love it when heroines stand up for themselves and Jessica does so here. Not everything is resolved in a completely satisfactory manner however. Jessica's brother is never really addressed, and something happens to one of the villains at the end that I personally felt was a bit of a letdown.
At the end of the day though, this is a good, solid debut historical, and bully for all of us that it's a western. I think it has massive crossover potential - in large part thanks to the trade paperback format (which plays very well in book club and historical fiction circles), breathtaking cover art, and the saga-like quality to the story. At its heart though, this is a romance novel. Make no mistake.
Final Grade = B-
Contest Alert! I'm giving away one copy of Pieces Of Sky! Contest is open to international (non-U.S.) readers, and will be chosen randomly from comments left on this blog post. Contest ends Sunday, March 14. Many thanks to Nancy Coffey Literary & Media Representation for providing a copy for this giveaway.