THE PEACEKEEPER (The Good Lands #1), by B.L. Blanchard

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.

My Rating:


RING SHOUT, by P. Djèlì Clark

Ring Shout is the kind of book I jokingly call “a Tardis-like story”, one that is much bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside: it’s a well-crafted mix of historical fiction and horror that kept me compulsively turning the pages, and what’s more prompted me to search for its many references to facts or details I knew nothing about, so that I ended up with a little more knowledge than I possessed before I started reading, which is always a definite plus for me.

The story is set in Georgia, in 1922: never-vanquished racism is experiencing a resurgence thanks to the 1915 first showing of D.W. Griffith’s movie The Birth of a Nation, which offered a sort of heroic aura to members of the Ku Klux Klan, whose heinous actions are here made worse by the appearance of monstrous, extra-dimensional creatures called Klu Kluxes – essentially supernatural beasts able to wear human form.  Griffith himself is portrayed as an evil sorcerer using his movie to propagate hateful, racist ideas to a wider public: while the very real writings of white suprematist Thomas Dixon reached a wide public, it was not considered wide enough, so that it was understood that a more capillary means of propagation was needed, hence the movie:

[…] books could only reach so many. That’s when D.W. Griffith took ahold of it. […] Dixon and Griffith had made a conjuring that reached more people than any book would.

Against this encroaching tide of evil, three very badass young women battle daily to keep the beasts as contained as possible: Maryse is a sort of “chosen one” heroine, able to summon a magical sword animated by the spirits of those who sold their people into slavery; Sadie is an exceptional, fearless sniper, wielding her Winchester rifle, affectionately called Winnie, with gleeful skill; and Cordelia (nicknamed Chef for her ability to cook devastating explosives) is a veteran of WWI dealing with post-war trauma. As the three engage the Ku Kluxes through guerrilla sorties – selling bootleg liquor in their free time – a new menace appears on the horizon through the ominous figure of Butcher Clyde, who rallies both Klansmen and Ku Kluxes for what might be a devastating engagement that threatens to unleash a new, pervasive form of destruction, touching both body and spirit.

As I said, I learned many new interesting facts by following the historical leads contained in this novella: even though I was aware of the existence of Griffith’s movie, I ignored both the story it portrayed and its not-so-subtle racism, just as I heard for the first time the term Ring Shout, which depicts a traditional dance brought from Africa by its enslaved people and offering strength from mixing Christian themes with reverence for one’s ancestors and the wisdom their example can offer. And another first is represented by the mention of Night Doctors, mythical figures used as a scaremongering technique by slave owners to prevent their laborers from running away.

These fascinating real-world details mix quite seamlessly with the breathless pace of the story and its horrific elements, whose Lovecraftian quality seemed to me a sort of tongue-in-cheek poke at racism, given that Lovecraft was well-known for his views on the subject, so that the presence of Cthulhu-like monsters wearing the guise of human beings can speak volumes on the effect that mindless hate and prejudice can have on people. Not to mention the further message that evil need not necessarily wear the face of a slavering monster from Hell, because it can be strengthened just as easily by witnessing injustice and choosing to do nothing about it, or worse, allowing it to prosper by supporting it wholeheartedly.

Even though set in the recent past, Ring Shout brings home in no uncertain terms the awareness that the issues of that past are still present today, unchanged and unchangeable: I like the way the author avoided the use of a preaching tone, but rather blended the more horrifying aspects of the story with some unabashed, witty banter that gifted the narrative with an easily flowing current but was nevertheless able to carry the message home quite clearly. Still, this apparent lightness never shifts attention from important themes, or the realization that now, like back then, humankind is divided by chasms that seem to get deeper with every passing day, that mindless hatred and anger are turning people into virtual monsters, driving them to forget their very humanity in the name of the oh-so-very dangerous mentality of “us and them”. 

The concept of the movie as a recruiting force (for want of a better word), as the images on screen bring the spectators’ worst instincts the surface, is one that I found profoundly disturbing: just as people at the start of the 20th Century felt legitimized in publicly supporting racism by seeing it portrayed in a widely popular movie, now, a hundred years later, their “inheritors” feel the same way because figures invested with authority give them the unspoken permission to be openly and proudly as racist as their ancestors.  Hate of the other has long been a way of mitigating one’s perceived inadequacies, as one of the characters underlines so well:

White folk earn something from that hate. Might not be wages, but knowing we on the bottom and they set above us – just as good, maybe better.

reminding us that such feelings can be a powerfully dangerous tool when wielded by the wrong person…

Despite its short number of pages, Ring Shout is a deep, and deeply engrossing story, a way to explore both factual history and the recesses of the human soul – and above all a thought-provoking book that we should not miss at any cost.

My Rating: