Anne Bishop returns to the fascinating world of the Others in Wild Country, a largely standalone outing set within the confines of her popular urban fantasy series, which rests upon a profound alternate history.
Human beings in the world of the Others have never been the top-level predators; those several spaces have been occupied by the terra indigene: vampires, shape-shifters, fae and other assorted creatures of legend, and Elementals and the Elders—beings so terrifying even magical predators speak of them in hushed tones. Humanity has existed at the largess of the Others. Land and, more importantly, water have long been rationed by the Others for use by humanity. Stepping beyond the bounds of the status quo would result in nothing good.
Unfortunately, through the five-novel plot arc that began with Written in Red and culminated in Etched in Bone, humanity did exactly that: pushed the hard boundaries of their existence alongside the Others, to fairly disastrous results. By the fourth installment, Marked in Flesh, the Elders had stepped in, decimating the populations of Thaisia (our North America) and Cel-Romano (Europe). In some places, entire towns ceased to be. That’s not to say the series is all death and destruction. The spine of the series concerns a single person, the blood prophet Meg Corbyn, who comes to live with the Others in the town of Lakeside, The series explores how she forges a web of connections between the humans and the Others, and how those connections help create a path forward, out of and away from the misunderstandings and inevitable violence that have heretofore been the norm whenever humans and the terra indigene cross paths.
Wild Country is part of a sequence of standalone novels (following Lake Silence) that expand the universe of the original series, but can also be read independently of them. It takes place concurrently with Etched in Bone, and some of the characters have connections with Lakeside, the town detailed in the first five books. But Wild Country takes place, instead, in Bennett, a town that saw its entire population destroyed—men, women and children—in the war with the terra indigene. Bennett is just down the road from Prairie Gold in NE Thaisia, which is largely peopled with Intuits, those humans who have some manner of second sight (a weather sense, prognostication, maybe an affinity with animals). Intuits tend to make humans nervous, and they get along better with the Others, so generally, their towns fared better in the culling.
Bennett is logistically important—a hub for the ranches, rail lines, and commerce in the region—so a group of Others decide to repopulate it. This presents several obstacles. There is a whole town’s worth of homes standing empty of humans, and filled with the food, pets, and personal items of the dead. Cleaning the houses out will take time, but more importantly, it is emotionally draining work. Communication between regions has been heavily curtailed by the Elders, making it hard to put out a call for workers. And given the disruption of the culling, there’s no real way to vet newcomers to the town, short of gut instinct and the shaky prognostications of the Intuits. The wolf sheriff and vampire mayor start with people they know they can trust: the sister of a cop in Lakeside; a new deputy just out of the academy; and Intuit woman from the Prairie Gold. They, in turn, will have to vet newcomers.
Not everyone that survived the culling is a good person. Thanos-like, the Elders struck out at humanity using their own inscrutable code; they are not moral agents, but forces of nature. The repopulating of Bennett then becomes an exercise in how to build a working community of terra indigene, humans, Intuits, Simple Life folk, cassandra sangue, and all of the rich panoply who inhabit this sometimes cruel world. The first half of Wild Country is a little diffuse: It’s hard to see who exactly are the main characters, given the wide scope and large cast, and the repopulation of Bennett takes place in fits and starts. This is calculated, I believe, because once the real conflict emerges, the hurtle to the end is tense and terrifying. Not everyone is going to fit in, even if they lack malice; the ones that are malicious, well. The process of building a town on the bones of a dead one is interesting stuff in its own right: there’s the excitement of building something new, layered with the funeral discomfort of living in the space previously occupied by a vanished community, and sorting their clothes, and eating their food.
The Old West is invoked in the rebuilding of Bennett many times, its people deliberately relying on the symbols and trappings of the frontier. (Honestly, I have some questions about how exactly our timeline meets up with the world of the Others, but the Western tropes seem to align.) The card sharp, the green deputy, the girl on the run, the stalwart rancher, the cattle rustlers, the flinty madam: these recognizable and familiar characters orbit the town of Bennett, pulled in by the prospect of a new life, but they are rendered strange and new in this not quite human place.
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