There are ghost towns in the world—places where the humans were annihilated in retaliation for the slaughter of the shape-shifting Others.
One of those places is Bennett, a town at the northern end of the Elder Hills—a town surrounded by the wild country. Now efforts are being made to resettle Bennett as a community where humans and Others live and work together. A young female police officer has been hired as the deputy to a Wolfgard sheriff. A deadly type of Other wants to run a human-style saloon. And a couple with four foster children—one of whom is a blood prophet—hope to find acceptance.
But as they reopen the stores and the professional offices and start to make lives for themselves, the town of Bennett attracts the attention of other humans looking for profit. And the arrival of the outlaw Blackstone Clan will either unite Others and humans…or bury them all.
‘Wild Country’ surprised me. I’d expected a sort of Wild West version of The Others. I’d imagined a sort of ‘High Noon’ scenario with the Wolfgard Sheriff in a shoot-out with a gang of malevolent Intuit gamblers to decide who was going to run the town. In a way, I got that but with a few unexpected twists along the way.
One of the twists was that ‘Wild Country’, despite the high body count and the grim nature of the struggle for power, was filled with humour, much of it to do with the care and feeding of puppies. The humour wasn’t just comic relief. It was one of the ways in which hope was introduced to the book. Seeing the Wolfgard Sheriff who hates humans for having slaughtered his family a year earlier in the failed Humans First And Last war against the others and his rookie-with-an-attitude female deputy squabble gently over the right way to raise of dog pup was emblematic of how the two species might find a way to live together peacefully.
Another unexpected part of the story was getting a closer look at how Intuits both in the Intuit farming community just outside Bennett and as part of the nomadic Blackstone Clan of gamblers and hustlers. We were shown a harder edge to both communities, which I felt made the Inuits easier to relate to than they were in the Meg books where I thought of them as Quakers with good instincts. Here we saw how different they are from the rest of humanity and how those differences have led to a need for self-reliance and self-protection.
If you’ve read the Meg books, then it’s not surprising that women play a prominent role in shaping events in ‘Wild Country’. What is surprising is how pragmatic and ruthless the women are. They’re the ones who remain clear-eyed about the risk in the situation and they’re the ones who take the hard decisions about who they’re willing to kill to protect what they value. The men keep falling into old patterns of conflict, dancing towards combat in predictable steps as if under the power of a Wild West meme. They accept the conflict as inevitable but don’t open their minds to all the options or consequences as they dance the familiar dance of challenge and combat. It’s up to the women to be ruthless enough to bring things to an end.
The biggest difference between ‘Wild Country’ and the Wild West / Frontier Town stories that framed the expectations of many of the characters in one fundamental truth: for humans. there is no safety in the Wild Country.
What the women seem to realise and adapt to is that humans live by the sufferance of the Elders and the Elementals, types of Others who make the shifters and vampires seem only mildly threatening. The conflict over the control of Bennett is completely specious. There is no way that the humans could control Bennett. The Elders would exterminate them first. Even when the humans are coming to a town which is empty because, a year ago, The Others killed every child, woman and man who lived there, they lack either the courage or the imagination to take in the reality of their vulnerability. This sanity-preserving but survival-threatening refusal to look reality in the eye seems quite real to me. It reminds me of how we live with climate change. We know it’s happening. We know our way of life is not sustainable. We can see the shortages of water and food and habitable land beginning to arrive but we work hard every day to distract ourselves from an unpalatable truth that, if acknowledged would make us feel helpless and afraid.
If the book has a message, I think it was: There is no safety in the Wild Country. Survival depends on accepting that, not denying it, and having the courage to adapt if you can and endure if you can’t.
As always with Anne Bishop’s books, ‘Wild Country’ was a fun read that quickly got me invested in the fates of a few key personalities, some of whom constantly misunderstood each other and all of whom were under threat from a big picture that they had yet to see.
I found the start of the book slow and a little disjointed. mostly because it shared a timeline with ‘Etched In Bone’ and aligning the two stories sometimes felt a little laboured, but things picked up once our female deputy arrived in town and started to bounce off the dominant wolf everything moved along nicely
I recommend the audiobook version of ‘Wild Country’. Alexandra Harris’ narration, which is unusual but powerful, has become a key part of my enjoyment of Anne Bishop’s books. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.