Note: This novella was originally published as part of an anthology entitled Gambled Away (no longer available for sale). Check your digital TBR before one-clicking.
"Suffering a little is always better than forgetting who you are."I love historical westerns and much to my delight, they've made somewhat of a small resurgence. Unfortunately the resurgence seems to have largely been felt in the "cozy, small town" areas of Romancelandia. Now, nothing wrong with this. I like cutesy historical western towns in Romancelandia. But my very favorite westerns are the dark, gritty ones. The Will We Survive Winter? variety of westerns. And there's just not a lot of those around these days. So the fact that Molly O'Keefe has been self-publishing dark historical westerns featuring characters still dealing with the aftermath of the Civil War? I've been all in. Redeemed is the third book in the series and while I wasn't madly in love with it, there's still a lot to recommend.
Dr. James Madison has fallen far from grace. He's off the chloroform that he was using to blunt his memories of the Civil War, but like any other drug addict, is still fighting his demons, wrestling with his cravings. He moved into a brothel where the madam helped to get him clean and he's still there, drifting through life, trying to fight the urge to go back to the little green bottles of oblivion. Then one day, a distraction wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a mystery arrives. Helen Winters, a former Union spy. Her odious "guardian," Charles Park, has her sing two nights while suspended in a bird cage (seriously). On the third night? A high stakes poker game where the players compete to win the chance to divest Helen of her virginity - presumably still intact since Charles never loses.
When James meets Helen he immediately deduces that something is rotten in Denmark. The woman is drugged out of her mind. Turns out with a combination of morphine and laudanum. But deciphering the truth of Helen is harder than he imagines. She says one thing, her body language and eyes say another. What is the truth and what are the lies that Helen is spinning in the name of self-preservation?
This is a dark book featuring two characters with very dark back stories. The shadow of the Civil War has featured prominently in this entire series, but nowhere is it more keenly felt than in this book. James spent the war amputating limbs from young boys begging him not to - that's not just something you get over. Helen, it turns out, really was a spy. A beautiful genteel Southern belle who, along with her mother, played a very dangerous game. James went to chloroform to forget ; Helen had drugs thrust upon her by the villain who has now ensured she's properly addicted.
This is a compelling read but one that really could have benefited from a longer word count (and I like novellas, as a rule!). There's just a lot of back-story here that the author doesn't invest a lot of time on. James has been estranged from his family ever since he ran away to Paris to pursue his medical degree. There's mention of sisters and a father, who is still alive, but then...nothing. Helen is from Charleston. Her father, naturally, fought for the Confederates while she and her mother used their social standing to spy for the Union. The question here is why. I need reasons for this. Was her mother originally from the North? Did she have abolitionist leanings? She's married to a Southern man who fought for the Confederates. How do you go from that to spying for the Union? This bit of back story is never fully addressed.
Because of this, and the fact that the "truth" of Helen takes a little time to ferret out, the romance itself is slow going. It does eventually show up in the later chapters, when an actual "courtship" begins and that immediately elevated this from a good, solid B grade to a B+. Because the courtship stuff is wonderful. I'm not going to lie, it truly is - complete with exchanging of letters. Also, by this point, James is beginning correspondence with doctors on the subjects of addiction (on the rise thanks to the introduction of the syringe) and "soldier's heart" (what we now call PTSD).
I liked this, but didn't love it. There were elements here that I thought were extremely well done, and O'Keefe is a fine practitioner of dark, gritty westerns (of which there are sadly few these days). The only "bad" thing I can say about this novella is that I wanted more - which really, by way of criticism, isn't all that bad. O'Keefe has created an interesting, multifaceted world with this series and she easily has room for more books. Here's hoping she entertains the idea.
Final Grade = B+