Tuesday, March 13, 2012

"Wide Open" by Deborah Coates-- Fantasy With a Little Rural Flavor

One of the best aspects of fantasy fiction is that there are no limits on where it can go or what it can do. It can take you to another world or bring magic to the most mundane setting. Over the last several years urban fantasy has been huge; a trend that fuses the bustle of the city with wild magic that often features vampires, werewolves and witches. But Deborah Coates goes an entirely different route with her ghost story that takes us to the plains of South Dakota.

Sergeant Hallie Michaels is called home from duty in Afghanistan with the awful news that her sister Dell has been killed in a tragic accident. But when Hallie gets off the plane and sees Dell's ghost, she begins to suspect that circumstances are not as simple as everyone wants her to think they are.

As Hallie begins looking into the circumstances behind Dell's death, she's brushed off as being too grief-stricken to accept that there was no foul play involved-- the sheriff even going so far to suggest it's a suicide. But Dell's ghostly presence tells Hallie that something else is happening. And when the ghosts of more young women begin to appear, Hallie realizes that something big is going on in her little town.

As Hallie returns to her old haunts in search of answers, she finds an unexpected ally in Boyd Davies, the new deputy sheriff, who always seems to be there when she needs him. But Boyd is also a mystery: too perfectly good looking and tidy to a fault. He seems to help Hallie even as he tries to dissuade her from digging into Del's death-- which only fuels Hallie's determination to find the truth.

Wide Open is an interesting book. It has a different pace; one that feels a bit rambling and takes a little time to get used to. And I didn't think I was into the book until I unexpectedly teared-up when Hallie calls the fiance of a young man who was killed in her unit in Afghanistan-- one whose ghost followed her back home.
     Hallie knew what she was supposed to say, not just what was expected, but what was true, but she hadn't ever said it. And now she was saying it for a ghost who couldn't say if for himself. Shit. She pressed the heel of her hand against her cheekbone just under her right eye, sucked in a breath, and said, "He loved you. He did. He told me that you read books all the time and he couldn't get over that-- how many books you read, that you talked about them like they were real-- the characters in them and the things they did. He told me before he met you, he only cared about math, that he didn't think anyone needed any of that other stuff-- English and other languages and history. He said you made him see the world. He told me he didn't even know he wanted someone until he met you."
     Estelle was crying hard now. Hallie rubbed a finger over her eye. "Look," she said. "I'm sorry. I'm-- it was stupid to call. I shouldn't have--"
     No! It's all right! It's--" She drew in a breath. "Thank you. Just for a minute, I could see him again, like he was here."

That moment was a pivotal point for me in "Wide Open" because the only emotion displayed by Hallie up to this point was anger-- and it's still her dominant characteristic throughout. This humanizing moment adds a lot of depth to Hallie and gives us a window into a person who has seen too much and armored herself with a bitter emotional shell that doesn't come down except in moments of vulnerability; and those don't come often.

The supernatural elements of "Wide Open" are subtle for the most part. Rather than go for the more violent, harsh aspects that are featured so often in urban fantasy, Coates chooses to populate her story with ghosts that are generally passive, though determined to find closure to their unresolved issues. Hallie, having had her own brush with death, is the only one who can see the ghosts and it's a disquieting reminder of the war she expects to return to. Hallie's not the type to shy away from confrontation- and she does get into a scrape or two- but the story never veers into anything graphic, and I found that to be a nice change of pace.

Hallie is one of those characters I could never get a physical feel for as she isn't described in detail, but I felt I knew her nonetheless. Coates has a way of painting a picture of a personality and I could really relate to Hallie as she'd grit her teeth in impatience at a friend who would ramble on with pointless conversation or describe herself as "big-picture messy." The way she'd look for something to hit, something to stoke her anger to keep her fear at bay, or her low-key way of communicating with her equally-stubborn father--all of these things make Hallie seem real.

Unfortunately the rest of the characters don't quite have the fullness of personality that Hallie has. The villains of the story aren't given more than one or two characteristics, like a mean streak or an unusual ability to listen when someone speaks. The back-stories are outlined but not really filled in enough to give them proper motives and the ultimate goal of the main villain seems sketchy and unrealized. Boyd is probably given the most physical detail of any character, including Hallie, but his story isn't really addressed until toward the end of the book and is isn't quite enough to make him as well-rounded a romantic interest as he could have been. Dell is also a character I would have liked to have seen developed a little more. Who she was and what role she played in her own death are touched on but never described in detail and so it was hard to feel invested in caring in that part of the story beyond a superficial level.

The strength in "Wide Open" is in the mood Coates sets. Hallie drives the story with her angry disposition and her attempts to stifle her frustrations while dealing with family, friends and old enemies. Her journey is strange yet still recognizable because we've all had those moments of going back home and, no matter what our life experiences have been, feeling as if we're being shoved back into the same routine of our former lives. But in this story strange magic and ghostly apparitions are a stark reminder that Hallie's home has changed-- and not for the better.

"Wide Open" is slightly uneven in detail but rich in atmosphere. Hallie's character defines the personality of the book and it is a unique combination of anger, frustration, wistfulness, sadness and an abiding, if understated, love. I might have wished for more detail from the book, but it was certainly never lacking in mood and for that alone I really enjoyed it. "Wide Open" ends in its own open-ended fashion, leaving room for a sequel, and I sincerely hope I get the chance to spend some more time with Hallie.

4 out of 5 stars.


Bob (Beauty in Ruins) said...

I'm generally not a big fan of urban fantasy, but the atmosphere here could really lure me in. Nice review.

Budd said...

a review for a female author. wait, lets not get that tread going again. sounds interesting.

Charles Gramlich said...

I kind of wish the fantasy boom was a little more along the lines of the stuff I really like to read, but I'm glad to see a boom of any kind.

SQT said...

Thanks Bob. It's a nice chance of pace from the normal UF thing.

SQT said...

Well, you know I had to get to work on that quota. I kid, I kid.

SQT said...

I need to vary what I review more. There's a lot of good traditional fantasy that I haven't gotten around to reviewing yet, as well as some scifi. I wish I had more time.

Jim Haley said...

Sounds interesting, your description of the book is reminiscent of how I felt about No Doors, No Windows by Joe Schreiber. Did this seem like a "one and done" kind of book?

SQT said...

You could read it as a stand-alone. She wraps up the story presented in this book, but does set it up for a sequel.