[This review was originally posted on Patreon.]
AUTHOR: Cherie Dimaline
ISBN: 978-0-06-297594-2; hardcover; 6 in x 8 in; (July 28, 2020)
320pp, B&W, $27.99 U.S.
Empire of Wild: A Novel is the 2020 American edition of the 2019 Canadian contemporary fantasy novel, Empire of Wild, from Canadian author, Cherie Dimaline. She is best known for her 2017 Young Adult novel, The Marrow Thieves, which won several awards including Canada's “Governor General's Literary Award.” Empire of Wild blends the traditional Canadian Métis legend of the werewolf-like creature, the Rogarou, with a woman's search for her missing husband.
Empire of Wild introduces Joan Beausoliel, who is part of a Métis family that has lived in their tightly knit rural community of Arcand for generations. [Largely associated with Canada, the Métis are an indigenous people descended from both North American indigenous people and European settlers.] In spite of that closeness, few of the young generations keep the old ways . . . until they have to keep them. That moment to remember the old ways and the old stories has arrived for Joan.
Joan has been searching for her missing husband, Victor Boucher, for nearly a year. One terrible night, they had their first serious argument, and Victor stormed out of their home, hours before he mysteriously vanished. One morning, grieving and severely hungover, Joan is at Walmart when she spots an old-timey, religious revival tent in the store's gritty parking lot. Something makes Joan enter the tent where she hears a shocking sound coming from deeper inside the tent. It is the unmistakable voice of Victor.
When she sees the male source of the voice, she discovers that the man who speaks in Victor's voice has the same face, the same eyes, and the same hands, although his hair is much shorter than she remembers Victor's being. And the man that looks like Victor is wearing a suit, which Victor never did. When Joan approaches this man, he doesn't seem to recognize Joan at all, and he insists that his name is Reverend Eugene Wolff. He says that as a reverend, his mission is to spread the word of Jesus and to grow His flock.
Yet Joan suspects there is something dark and terrifying within this charismatic preacher who professes to be a man of God . . . something old and very dangerous. Joan's mystery is apparently tied to the traditional Canadian Métis legend of the Rogarou, a werewolf-like creature that haunts the roads and woods of native people’s communities.
Joan turns to Ajean, an elderly woman who is one of the few among her community steeped in the traditions of her people and in the knowledgeable about their ancient enemies. Jointed by her twelve-year-old nephew, Zeus, Joan embarks on a mission to uncover the truth about Eugene Wolff. Lurking behind the good reverend, however, is another creature of legend.
THE LOWDOWN: My previous experience with a work of fiction centered on the Métis is Louis Riel (1999-2003), Chester Brown's comic book biography of the real-life Métis political leader, Louis David Riel, which I last read over fifteen years ago. When William Morrow's marketing team offered Empire of Wild to book reviewers, I jumped at the chance to read it upon discovering that involved the Métis.
In Empire of Wild, author Cherie Dimaline offers a novel that is part dark fantasy, part folklore, part suspense thriller, and part crime novel. Dimaline emphasizes the humanity of her characters, depicting their all-too human yearnings, desires, longings, selfishness, and propensity for violence. So, Empire of Wild reads like a contemporary novel that is about a particular group of people, the times in which they live, and their struggles. The legends and the folklore obviously play a big part in this story, but the fantastic does not dominate the narrative over the characters. Empire of Wild's magical realism does not explode until the final chapter and the epilogue and delivers an ending that only serves to emphasize how truly unique this novel is.
The supernatural in Empire of Wild is earthy and grounded, so the book draws the readers into a world they can recognize, even if the people are new to them. The result is a gripping read that won't let go of the readers' imaginations even after the last page. I'm already hankering for a sequel...
I READS YOU RECOMMENDS: Readers looking for exceptional contemporary fantasy fiction from a different folkloric background will want to read Empire of Wild: A Novel.
9 out of 10
Reviewed by Leroy Douresseaux a.k.a. "I Reads You"
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