Firelands - Michael Jensen
(sequel to Frontiers)
Firelands is Michael Jensenís sequel to Frontiers, and you really do want to try and read that one first, as most of the key characters are the same.
Set two years after Frontiers, the first person narrative of this novel shifts from John Chapman to Cole Seavey, a newcomer to the frontier. Itís an interesting device, to see John and his relationship with Palmer through the eyes of a stranger, and its gives the necessary detachment to cope with some of the more harrowing events of his sequel.
Cole is an interesting character. He refers to himself as cold-hearted Cole and the true theme of this novel is Cole coming to understand why heís kept emotional distance from people all his life. Shown what true cold-heartedness is, he realises heís anything but aloof.
First off, let me say quite definitely that without reservation I think this has been one of the most exciting books Iíve read so far. Itís up there was the Jas Anderson books (Freeform, Banged Up, Some Kind of Love) for page-turning intensity. I actually read this one long into the night and then felt too uneasy to sleep. Itís that good a book.
However, thatís not to say that itís not without flaws. The frontier in this novel is not only shown as a harsh and unforgiving habitat, but as a place of mystery and ancient lore. The ancient ways were torn apart by the settlers in Frontiers, and in Firelands, the natural world kicks back. An ancient demon, woken by the destruction, seems to be attacking the settlers. Cole has the closest run-ins with it and it calls his nameóancient Indian legend foretelling that he will become its next victim. The suspense that the author sets up with this creature is quite unbearable, but Iím not sure I felt the resolution did it justice.
I did like the love story in the novel, that between Cole and Pakim (a Delaware brave). Cole arrives in the frontier, running away from an engagement. His growing feelings for Pakim naturally disturb him, but he canít deny them. He begins an intense and highly erotic relationship with Pakim. Never explicit, the sex between them is highly chargedógiven spice by the intensity of the danger surrounding them.
This is quite a bloodthirsty book: the demon attacking without warning, bodies desecrated.† It only emphasises the vulnerability of these frail humans trying to combat the natural and unnatural elements. They form a hardy little band, bound together by a determination to defeat the demon and pursue their dreams to live on the frontier. They long to reach the mythical land called Firelands, which they have been told is a paradise compared to the eerie place of trees and snow they are trying to escape. Dreams might not be enough and not all of them survive to reach the promised land.
I desperately hope that Michael Jensen writes a third novel in this series. Highly recommended, especially for people who want an incredibly good adventure story where the gay elements are entirely natural, almost incidental to the main themes.
Firstly, this isnít exactly a sequel to Jensenís Frontiers. I wish Iíd read this one first, because maybe then I wouldnít have been so disappointed.† Not that I didnít enjoy the novel.† I did.† But itís not the book I wanted.† I canít blame Jensen for not wanting to write the same story again.† He did a brilliant job with his first novel.† Thatís the problem.† We readers get too emotionally engaged.
John Chapman isnít the focus of this story.† Yes heís there, together with Palmer Baxter, and faithful friend Gwennie.† But POV switches to a new character whoís not so articulate and not immediately likeable. Heís got a high opinion of himself that grates.† Okay thatís characterisation, and it works. I was hyper-critical simply because he wasnít John.† I wanted details of John and Palmerís life together.† Writers donít always give us what we want. Weíre told theyíve been focus of speculation in the settlement.† A tantalising snippet, when John describes how Palmer has made him sociable, taking him to community events, where they dance and meet some good people.† Thatís not enough.†
Itís November 1799 and winter is setting in on the frontier.† Cole Seavey, a 20 year old hunter, arrives in Ohio Territory, partly to find rapscallion older brother, Gerard, mostly to escape an unwanted marriage back east. The settlement of Hughís Lick where John and Palmer live isnít exactly prosperous.† Food is scarce and life very hard indeed.† Relations between settlers and local Delaware tribe a powder keg waiting to blow.† John and Palmer have their cabin in the woods, away from the main settlement, and† Gwennie lives nearby in her own place.
The opening is extremely gory and sets the tone for the rest of the book, a horror novel, also unusual coming out tale and story of first love.† Thereís palpable menace thatís genuinely scary.† The sense of a predator out there capable of unimaginable horrors, picking off settlers and natives alike, is terrifying.† Jensen plays with misdirection and similar tricks to lull us into false security then wallops us with another slice of gore.† Itís definitely not† a book to read late at night alone unless youíre of a stronger disposition than me.
It takes a while to warm to Cole.† As he opens up to his feelings we see his posturing is cover, that he isnít the man he really wants to be at all. The book is his journey of self-discovery, from Cold-blooded Cole to warm and vulnerable lover, unafraid to express emotions and give heart, body and soul to another man.† He wants† a home and finds it in Pakim, a beautiful tattooed brave.† When Cole is attacked by an evil spirit from Native American legend, a wendingo, heís rescued and taken to Johnís cabin by Pakim.† Cole is stirred by the Indian in a way heís never felt before.† He doesnít know men can be attracted to each other, and has no idea until Pakim later explains to him the nature of John and Palmerís relationship.† Pakim, of course, helps Cole to let loose hidden desire.† This, together with Pakimís spirituality, love of nature and strength, is what I liked best about the book.†
Jensen makes the relationship real.† No small feat when you consider the standard handsome horny white man meets beautiful uninhibited native scenario is pure porn.† If youíve read Richard Amoryís classic ďLoon TrilogyĒ youíll know what I mean.† Sexual tension crackles from the start.† When they become intimate itís achingly erotic rather than explicit.† I enjoyed the exploration of inter-racial love on the frontier, where most settlers made no distinction between friendly and hostile tribes, regarding all Indians as savages. Coleís experience of his new feelings is done with great effect, building believably from that first unsettling encounter.† Thereís a scene in which Pakim gives Cole a tattoo that did more for me than most pornos.
So, lots of good things going for a book that certainly held my attention from beginning to end.† However, I have problems with it.†
One is the characterisation of John Chapman.† Quite simply, and for no good reason, heís not the man he was in Frontiers.† Heís weak and indecisive, prone to collapse under pressure, useless in crisis.† This is what happens to a hero who commits to another?† Sorry, I just didnít buy that.† Jensen builds up Cole at the expense of John, and I didnít like it at all.† When John berates Cole for cowardice in not owning up to his feelings for Pakim we see the man we know, the man of courage who lives as he chooses.
Elements felt contrived, with characters appearing/disappearing in unlikely circumstances, and over-reliant on coincidence.† John would leave Gwennie alone without protection while the wendingo attacks and kills horrifically?† In the middle of carnage and mayhem, with John catatonic and their friends in danger, Cole and Pakim take time out to have hot sex.† I loved the scene but it made me uneasy.†
Then thereís the limitation of writing historical fiction using real people as main characters.† Chapman becomes American icon Johnny Appleseed.† So Jensen has no creative control over his ultimate destiny.† Now Iím not saying anything here to give away the plot, but this has real significance to the book that rather spoiled it for me.† Youíll have to read it to judge for yourself.
Please don't be put off by my criticisms. This IS a very good book, exciting and innovative. I have no hesitation recommending it. I hope Jensen continues to challenge as well as entertain his readers.
Published by: Alyson Books, IBSN: 1555838405
Buy Firelands from Amazon here