I received this novel from 47North through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.
The narrative core of The Peacekeeper comes from the blending of two elements: a classic whodunit investigation and an alternate version of our world in which the American continent was not colonized by European explorers, so that the Native populations were able to thrive and progress toward their own form of modern society. No explanation is given about the historical “hiccup” which prompted the creation of this ramification from our reality (although I hope that the next books in the series will answer this question), but the result is a society which pays more attention to nature and its conservation, one that created a very interesting set of laws, a theme I will explore in more detail later on.
Such a well-balanced society is not, however, immune from acts of violence. The novel’s main character is Chibenashi, the titular Peacekeeper (i.e. a police officer) in the small village of Baawitigong: his mother was brutally killed twenty years before, at the height of the Manoomin harvest festival, by her husband, who freely admitted his guilt for the murder and has been locked up in prison ever since. Chibenashi, who at the time was a teenager and feels guilty for having indulged in drink that night, and therefore could not be there to save his mother, is carrying the heavy burden of caring for his younger sister Ashwiya, who never recovered from the trauma of the murder and is heavily dependent on her brother who is her only practical and emotional contact with the rest of the world.
On the twentieth anniversary of the tragedy, as the present Manoomin harvest is being celebrated, a new murder shakes the small community, and this time the victim is Meoquanee, Chibenashi’s neighbor and helper, and his mother’s closest friend. The modus operandi looks the same as the one from twenty years prior, and this casts heavy doubts on Chibenashi father’s guilt, prompting the Peacekeeper to travel to Shikaakwa (Chicago? I’ve been wondering ever since…) to examine the clues through the more advanced means offered by the big city. Once there, Chibenashi will have to confront his past – and himself – in many ways, and the journey of discovery will take him on unexpected and quite harrowing paths…
The Peacekeeper can be enjoyed on more than one level: there is of course the alternate history section which shows a world that is at the same technological level of our own, with computers, smartphones and sophisticated investigative techniques, but that developed in such a way as to not overly stress the planet’s resources, in keeping with the Native Americans’ way of integrating with nature so that a balance can always be achieved. This outlook is what also created a very intriguing justice system which does not rely on punishment but rather on rehabilitation through reparatory actions toward the victims, who need to be “made whole” again after their suffering. It’s a utopian point of view – and the story itself shows how the system does not always work – but it’s a fascinating one and it’s showcased quite a bit throughout the story, turning it into one of its more captivating aspects.
Where the murder investigation is quite appealing, it’s not the focal point of the novel: I have to admit that early on I started suspecting a certain individual who in the end is revealed as the real killer, but the lack of surprise on this front did not detract from my eagerness in discovering the truth of it as Chibenashi follows the often contradictory clues from both murders – even though I had no doubt about the identity of the murderer, I wanted to know why, and how both killings were perpetrated. What really held my attention here is Chibenashi’s journey of discovery, not only of the mystery he’s investigating, but of himself and of what drives him.
Chibenashi is not an easy character to connect with, given that he’s somewhat depressed and isolated, but once I understood where his attitude came from, the almost impossible burden he toils under, I could not avoid feeling a great deal of sympathy for him and was able to forgive the sometimes abrasive way he deals with the people he comes in contact with, particularly once he finds himself as the proverbial fish out of water in Shikaakwa. Even though he never says it out loud – even to himself – Chibenashi is a trapped individual: trapped by his responsibility toward what’s left of his family, by the stigma of being the son of a murderer, by his inability to envision a life beyond the limited (and stifling?) confines of Baawitigong. He is so used to the self-imposed limitations of his life, that he’s unable to conceive of anything else:
[…] you get so used to the pain that you don’t even notice it anymore […] You would only notice its absence.
That’s the reason I was able to root for him even when he took some questionable decisions, because I wanted to see him break free of the chains holding him down, and that’s why the difficult, painful journey that he takes as he investigates the case, turned into a very compelling read I feel confident in recommending if you want to read a mystery with a very unique slant.
Probably the resolution is the part where the story faltered a little for me, due to the real killer’s long, drawn-out explanation that for me took some of the wind out of the story’s proverbial sails, but it’s a very small “incident” in what proved to be an otherwise smooth and intriguing road. And I will certainly welcome more stories set in this fascinating version of our world.