It’s not often that I fall in love with a book. Like my feelings towards people, I’m indifferent to most books, like a bunch of books, really really like some books, but only a select few tug on my heartstrings. That small fraction of my total literary intake are the stories that affected me in some way, left an imprint on me, opened my eyes to a new way of crafting and melding language. They may not change my life or reorient my entire life perspective (although a very, extremely, infinitesimally rare few do—hello American Gods and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), but they dig their claws into me and by the time I finish the last word, all I want to do is turn to the first page and start all over again.
Wide Open by Deborah Coates is one of those books.
On a ten day compassionate leave from her post in Afghanistan, Sergeant Hallie Michaels lands in an airport in South Dakota with the ghost of an army buddy in tow and another waiting at the gate—her recently deceased sister Dell. Hallie’s seven minute death a few weeks prior altered her somehow and gave her the ability to see the dead, or possibly just the dead that want to be seen. The official line from the Sheriff’s office is that Dell committed suicide by wrapping her car around a tree out near the ruins of a town that was flattened twenty years earlier by a tornado. Hallie doesn’t buy it and sets about turning over every rock she can find to uncover the truth.
Her private investigation runs her against and alongside Deputy Boyd Davies, an attractive, quiet young man who always seems to show up out of nowhere when Hallie least expects it but when he’s needed the most. There is more to the Boy Deputy than meets the eye, but on which side of the line does he fall? He seems earnest enough in helping her, but always corrals her questions with “it is an ongoing investigation” and is intent on getting in her way. Hallie’s prying also runs afoul of two local boys turned businessmen who have made it no secret that they want nothing more than for her to leave town. The ghosts pile up as the body count rises, and Hallie and Boyd quickly discover that magic is a lot bigger, a lot more powerful, and a helluva lot more dangerous than pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
I read Wide Open in three days. Partly because I was behind on getting this review out, but mostly because I didn’t want to put it down. The story itself is engaging and engulfing. Unlike many contemporary fantasy novels, in Wide Open there are no sexy vampires or t-shirt hating werewolves, no wizards or gods pretending to be like everyone else. Her ghosts aren’t wisecracking sidekicks or headless horsemen who can kill you just as easily as the living. Instead they’re as substantial as fog with almost as much thought process. They can’t directly affect anything, and most of the time they don’t even seem to realize they exist, but when something does get their attention they can make their will known. They are floating clouds of arctic chill haunting Hallie’s days and terrorizing her in dreams.
This book is a prime example of what Charlaine Harris calls Rural Fantasy. In Urban Fantasy, the cityscape is such a vital part of the story that it becomes almost a silent main character. Rural Fantasy is basically the same thing except exchanging a metropolis for an agrarian environment. There’s a constant sense of the emptiness of the land, of looking out into the expanse and seeing nothing but dry grass and cottonwood trees. Coates’ South Dakota is evocative and lushly descriptive. I know absolutely nothing about South Dakota beyond what I learned from watching Deadwood, but now I have a sense of what it’s like to stand on an open prairie and feel like the only person left in the world.
But my favorite part of the whole thing was Coates’ writing style. I never grew tired of hearing the different ways Hallie described how cold the ghosts made her feel, of how angry or confused or ineffectual she felt, of the different freak storms. And I loved the dialogue. It came off as both very realistic and very true to the characters. People don’t speak in full sentences. We cut each other off, trail off without finishing, get scattered and distracted, forget what we were saying, refuse to say what we mean or mean what we say, and live and die by subtext and subtlety. Coates has mastered realistic dialogue and made it colloquial without being grating or difficult to read. She doesn’t have to describeher characters in minute detail because the way they speak, the words they choose, and the things they leave out reveal everything you need to know about them.
After finishing Wide Open, I have decided that I hate Deborah Coates. She has written a fantastic piece of fiction that has singlehandedly pulled Urban/Rural Fantasy out of the trenches of cheap, lazy paranormal romance mass trades. She has developed her own unique way of writing, a style that is specific to her and stands her apart from the chaff. Her characters are vivid and three dimensional without being overtly and overbearingly quirky. Her ability to set the scene and describe the environment in a way that drops the reader right in the middle of everything is aces above the rest. And she’s done it all as a first time author. I hate her. No one should be this good on their debut. I want to hate her. I should hate her.
Oh, who am I kidding. I love her to death.
Alex Brown is a research librarian by day, writer by night, and all around geek who watches entirely too much TV. One of these days she will go out and have a life, but until then she’s just going to sit here and watch Jonathan Creek, thank you very much. You can follow her on Twitter if you dare.