This is a really great thriller with a memorable character: Gunnie Lizbeth Rose. Gunnie being both her title and her profession - a hired gun. Lizbeth is just nineteen but already a valued member of a crew; a professional group hired to get someone or something from place A to place B in a wild west sort of environment. Lizbeth lives in Texoma, a section of what was once the United States until President FDR was killed and the country decimated by the influenza, leaving it vulnerable to predations from Mexico, Russia and even Canada. The west coast, including what was California and Oregon, is now the Holy Russian Empire and Tsar Alexei rules in exile.
After Lizbeth's crew was killed in the first book, she healed up and was hired by a new crew; her reputation preceding her. Her first job was to guard a crate and carry it from Texoma (formerly Texas and Oklahoma) to Dixie (formerly the southeastern part of the USA). The train they were on was attacked and after all the shooting was done, Lizbeth was the only one still standing and the crate was gone. Suffering from a concussion and stranded in a southern town with no money or respectable clothes, Lizbeth was reluctantly grateful to run into the grigori, Eli. Eli was looking for the man who contracted them to deliver the crate and willing to hire her to finish the job. Lizbeth and Eli had an intense attraction to each other from their previous association and being thrown together in such a volatile situation just made them even closer.
After the train wreck, Lizbeth's priorities are to look after her remaining crew members; their boss had died without telling them anything about their employer - or paying them; and then finding the crate to complete the job. She makes the acquaintance of three other shooters; two of which are employed by a big firm called Iron Hand and one is out of work. None of them inspire trust in her; but she can't determine if they are there to help or if they contributed to the disaster.
While Eli obviously knows what was in the crate and is very mysterious about what was expected to happen after it was delivered; he is very reluctant to share the information with Lizbeth. She understands his reticence as he had sworn an oath but it does make her job of guarding him a bit more difficult. What's more difficult is to blend into a town that has some very stringent ideas of what constitutes a "decent" woman. And Lizbeth has another, more personal, mission to complete. Her best friend on her previous crew was black and from this town. Lizbeth intends to find her parents and give them news of their daughter. But while the town required certain appearance and behavior from their women, their black citizens were required to be silent and obedient. It isn't safe for a white woman to contact black people; much less have a personal conversation with them. From a couple of throwaway statements, it is clear that slavery, as an institution, is no longer but that doesn't mean slavery is altogether gone. And it becomes apparent to both Lizbeth and Eli that the town is a powderkeg of simmering hatred and resentments.
It turns out that the missing crate is the most complicated thing about this story. It's history, who sent it to a small Southern town, and - most importantly - why, is what really drives this story; second only to Eli's and Lizbeth's growing relationship. Because first and foremost, Ms. Harris writes compelling romance and mystery. The crate is there to change the future.
Much like her Sookie stories, these books are like candy to this reader. I can devour them in a day. I think it's because they are deceptively simple. Ms. Harris has a divine talent of portraying a person like Lizbeth or Sookie as they really are; in their own words. They see the world in the simplest terms relative to who they are. Which means they don't know more than they should (I am tired of lazy writers who give their characters almost supernatural insight so to avoid exposition) and they discover truths or evidence as the reader does; in a natural progression. She doesn't spend pages delving into a character's psyche but she does give enough to solidly place the reader into the character development. The world-building is actually sparse; again, we see it as Lizbeth sees it. In some books, I enjoy lush detail of an alternate reality but it would detract from the flavor of these. Lizbeth's life experience is of a simple life. She lives in a dirt-poor simple town, with people whose lives seldom extend past their friends and family, and she works a simple job: guard the cargo. So it's fitting that the story reflect those values. It is, however, a serious stumbling block in her relationship with Eli, a rich Prince in the Holy Russian Empire.
Thank goodness that Ms. Harris has more stories in mind for Gunnie Rose. And since she never lets romance play second-fiddle in the plot, I'm sure we'll see more of Eli. Look for my next review of the third book "The Russian Cage." ~~ Catherine Book
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