I’ve been bingeing on Regencies lately (delicious, delicious Regencies) so I made a New Year’s resolution to explore historicals set in different time periods. I’m glad I did or I probably never would have read Lone Warrior by Lori Austin, and boy, did I like it. I’m trading in my rakes for cowboys, people.
I hadn’t read a Western in a really long time, let alone one that dealt with Native Americans. I remember all the “Savage” books of old (one of the first books I read had the white heroine raped in chapter one by the Native American hero). Then there was a sort of overly politically correct backlash where any characters of color in romance were shining beacons of every virtue, be they secondary characters or heroes. They weren’t real people, they were the author tip-toeing around the fact that people did really horrible shit back then.
Anyway, the hero of this book is Luke Phelan. He fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War and was captured and tortured. He was granted a release as long as he agreed to ride west and fight the Indians with the army. During one encounter, Luke trades his life to the Cheyenne for the lives of three captives. He starts out a slave among them, then later is accepted and becomes a sort of honorary brother-in-arms to the Dog Men, elite Cheyenne soldiers.
Also, the Cheyenne refer to Luke as “The White Ghost with Hair of Fire” because he’s a redhead. Of course they do.
When the book opens Something Bad has happened and Luke is now living as a hermit in the Smoky Hills of Kansas. He’s having a little pity party when he’s sought out by the heroine, Rose Varner. The Cheyenne have kidnapped Rose’s daughter, Lily, and she wants Luke to help her find them so she can get her child back.
Luke initially has zero interest in going back to the Cheyenne, in no small part because he left on really bad terms, but circumstance force them together anyway.
A lot of things happen in this book. There’s a lot traveling and movement and action scenes, but none of it detracts from the romance. There is the harsh terrain that they have to survive. There’s the U.S. Army to contend with, and the Pawnee and the Sioux and the Cheyenne, none of them super friendly. There are bounty hunters. Basically EVERYTHING IN THE WORLD wants to kill Luke and Rose. This is a book about a journey, and if you like that, then look no further.
I liked that Luke and Rose aren’t struck by insta-lust or insta-love. There’s attraction, sure, but their love grows out of a mutual respect—a grudging one on Luke’s part. It’s almost like they fall in love without really being aware of it, like the love sneaks up on them in the dead of night and smacks them on the head and says “Guess what, motherfuckers?”
But the highlight of the book for me was Rose. She’s an amazing heroine. She’s not especially pretty or strong or special in any way, but she refuses to give up. She’s got a quiet sort of courage that made me respect and love her.
Rose was from a rich family in Boston, but she wasn’t the prettiest girl in town, and she was frequently ill. With the Civil War decimating the population of young and eligible men, she knew she’d die an old maid. She wanted children, so she answered the advertisement of a German homesteader in Kansas and traveled there to marry him sight-unseen. She traded in a comfortable life for a hard one with a stranger so she could have a family. Damn.
Of course, she didn’t know that her homestead was on Cheyenne land, and that’s how her home was burned and daughter stolen. Lily was kidnapped to “replace” a child a Cheyenne woman had lost to the whites. This brings up all kinds of issues even if Rose does find her daughter, who has now spent more than a year with a new mommy.
The Native American characters in this book came in all kinds of shades of gray, which I appreciated. They were real characters, complex and fully-drawn. Lone Warrior made me realize that I know shamefully little about the history of Native Americans. I bought a non-fiction on the subject to fill in the huge gaps in my education. As a result, I can’t vouch for the accuracy of Austin’s depictions of her Native American characters, but there was enough detail here to suggest to me that she’d done her research.
Research aside, there was some definite WTFery here. The hero and heroine have sex in a sinkhole. There’s a big storm and they fall into a sinkhole and Luke starts freaking out because he was thrown in a pit by the Union army, so what do they do? Have sex. It’s sort of primal and raw, what with the thunderstorm above and mud below, but all I could think of was What happens if you get mud in your vagina? I actually Googled it. I still don’t have an answer, but it can’t be good.
Even if there was no corresponding yeast infection, they’d both be picking dried mud out of their crevices for days. Come to think of it, Rose and Luke don’t bathe much in this book, and they’re pretty bloody and sweaty. And there’s no tooth-brushing. Fortunately I have a healthy sense of historical-hygiene denial.
My only issue with this book is that the ending happened really fast. There is a lot of action and a lot of new characters introduced in the last a few chapters, so much so that it left me spinning a little. This is also the third book in Austin's Once Upon a Time in the West series, and some characters from the earlier books show up, so you may want to read them in order. I’ve picked up the first two and am looking forward to a weekend of cowboys and bounty hunters and muddy sex in the Wild West.
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