An Outlaw in Wonderland
An Outlaw in Wonderland sounded like it was right up my alley. A Union doctor who spies in a Confederate hospital? A Virginia heroine with mixed loyalties? Sign me up! Or not. All the exciting stuff on the back cover takes place at the beginning of the book, which rapidly devolves into kitchen sink plotting of the worst kind. In this instance, the back cover copy is wildly misleading.
The story begins with Dr. Ethan Walsh working to save lives after the Battle of Gettysburg. He receives a proposition: He can become a spy in a Richmond hospital, passing along all the important information he hears. He’ll still be saving lives and he just might help end the war sooner. He accepts on the condition that his brother Mikey (who seems to be simple minded but is an expert tracker and follower) will be his contact.
Ethan is soon ensconced in Chimborazo Hospital, saving more lives than anyone else because he has modern ideas about handwashing (I know it’s theoretically possible, but I swear every doctor in historical romances seems to be ahead of his time in this regard). While he is busy saving lives and affecting an Irish brogue because he can’t manage a fake Southern accent, he falls in love with his beautiful nurse, Annabeth Phelan. Annabeth has been trying to do whatever she can for the cause because most of her brothers have died in the Confederate army, and the one remaining has most likely been captured. After Ethan passes along a particularly valuable piece of information, the Rebel powers that be realize their is a spy in their midst. They recruit Annabeth to entrap Ethan, so she puts fake information where he can’t help but notice. Since she’s already in love with him, she hopes he won’t take the bait, but he does. This leads to his capture, and he, Annabeth, and Mikey are all placed in Castle Thunder Prison, along with Mikey’s sharpshooter friend Fedya.
Ethan and Annabeth are still in love and manage to make love in the prison. Unfortunately, things go badly wrong when Fedya is forced to shoot a can off Mikey’s head. Mikey is seriously injured, and when he revives he believes that he is a Russian named Mikhail. He no longer remembers that he is Ethan’s brother. Fortunately, what happens after that is glossed over quickly, and before we know it the war is over. (Like, literally before we know it. One minute you are reading about their travails, and the next minute it says “in spring of 1865, the war ended.”)
After this, Ethan and Annabeth are reunited (she had her head shaved, but don’t worry about that). They settle in Kansas where she gets ready to have her baby. And then the fun starts. Ethan finds out that Annabeth betrayed him. She gets upset, has the (stillborn) baby early, then takes off. We catch up with her five years later when Fedya finds her and tells her that Ethan is in trouble. What has Annabeth been doing in the meantime? Working for the Pinkerton Agency, trying to catch this creepy outlaw guy and find his hideout called Wonderland (hence the book title). She is sleeping with him for the sake of authenticity. But she comes to Ethan’s aid and discovers that he is now a laudanum addict. From here the plot starts jumping around from one bizarre circumstance to another, including (but not limited to) tornadoes, a love triangle, a mysterious Indian Ethan calls Joe, a murdered sheriff, and plenty of other stuff not worth mentioning.
You can have a fast-paced whirligig of a plot any day of the week. If you’ve managed to write convincing characters, your readers will happily go along for the ride. Annabeth and Ethan are not particularly interesting or sympathetic. They never aroused more than polite disinterest. I sat by vaguely observing as they were shot at, stormed upon, and placed in danger, never particularly caring what happened to them.
I think part of the problem is that their actions rarely made sense. Annabeth’s flight into the wilderness to become a Pinkerton/outlaw’s woman is probably the best example. Yes, her fight with Ethan was upsetting. Yes, it is terrible to lose a child. But if someone is the love of your life, you could probably talk it out, or at least try. I guess Ethan’s laudanum addiction made a little more sense, but I still couldn’t manage to drum up any interest in him either.
Perhaps the other part of the problem is that the writing isn’t quite up to par. Transitions are abrupt and I often had to back up to figure out what was going on. It almost reads as if Austin gets bored with a topic and just moves on (like when the Civil War is just over all of the sudden). The ending has similar issues; when it’s about time to wrap up, we suddenly learn where Annabeth’s brother is, but she doesn’t go find him or anything. The matter of Mikey/Mikhail is left unresolved, presumably to be addressed in a later book which I have absolutely no interest in reading.
I really wish I could recommend An Outlaw in Wonderland. I like American historicals, and I’d love to read a good Civil War story. Unfortunately, this book is not it.
|Review Date:||May 27, 2013|
|Book Type:||American Historical Romance|
|Review Tags:||addiction | American Civil War | Frontier Romance | Frontier/Western Historical Romance | Reconstruction era | Western romance|