There is nothing better for a book reviewer like me than discovering a new (to me) writer. Firelands gave me that great pleasure. Author Michael Jensen’s previously published novel, Frontiers, introduced readers to American folk hero Johnny Appleseed, and in this new book, he once again takes us into the wild and stark frontier, but with terrifyingly different results.
Firelands is part portrait of frontier America, part supernatural horror story, part erotic “same-sexy” love tale, all set in an environment that is barely survivable, with a small group of people who must fight off starvation, the elements, warring neighbors, and now a mysterious and vicious creature called the Wendigo that is killing off the small settlement one by one.
The lead character is a man named Cole Seavey, who comes to the Ohio settlement of Hugh’s Lick to find his estranged brother Gerard. Instead, he encounters a deadly creature that is not human at all and finds himself held captive by his fear of the monster. Along with an enigmatic Indian named Pakim, who befriends Cole and captures his heart as well, Cole meets John and Palmer, two gay lovers who try to keep their sexuality hidden from the ruthless and intolerant townsfolk. He also befriends a fiery but elusive Indian woman named Gwennie, who harbors her own secret demons. All of them must put up with each other, and with some very nasty townsfolk who are determined to blame the murders on the nearby Delaware Indians.
Cole must not only prove the Indians were not responsible but try to deal with the harsh elements of a town with more people than food as the creature continues to kill. Cole must also try to deal with his brother’s bad reputation, which has left a bad taste in the mouth of townsfolk towards anyone named Seavey, and also with his growing sexual attraction to Pakim. Add to this a possible new wife and baby, and the threat of war between the settlers and local Indians, and Cole is tested to the very limits of his humanity, courage and emotional stability.
Ultimately, as more bodies pile up, the remaining townsfolk realize they must either leave or confront the Wendigo, and Cole, John, Pakim, Palmer and Gwennie take on the brave role of creature-hunters to horrifying and tragic results. In the end, though, a horrible secret is exposed in one of the best twist endings I’ve read in any novel, leaving Cole battling a demon he knows all too well.
Jensen’s page-turner is filled with thrills, chills, surprises, twists, and an underlying sense of doom that keeps you reading wee into the early morning hours. But it is the sensual, highly charged romance between two men, Cole and Pakim, that really makes this novel unique, a romance that develops so naturally and not at all for shock value. And, it is the underlying theme of the horror novel – that we often direct our fear at the wrong people because we are simply too ignorant to face our own demons – that makes this book ever so timely with today’s Muslim-bashing, proving that human behavior even in the old frontier days has not changed much, and that we are still killing in the name of fear, Wendigo or no Wendigo.