Paloma and the Horse Traders
Reading this book made me realize why authors publish different books under different names. I have a picture in my head of “a Carla Kelly book” and Paloma and the Horse Traders doesn’t fit that mold. The setting is very violent (which I avoid in fiction), the characters make some morally questionable decisions, and the writing voice is not her Harlequin style. If you’re expecting something like Kelly’s Harlequins, this is not it. Whether or not you want to read it will depend on how you feel about what it is instead.
In 1784, Paloma and Marco Mondragon live on the edges of Comancheria, native-controlled territory in the Spanish colony of New Mexico. This is a perilous existence, plagued by disease and conflict. In previous books, they have helped establish a fragile peace, but now Great Owl, a brutal Comanche, is determined to break it. Marco, a colonial judge and brand inspector, has both a professional and personal interest in stopping Great Owl to keep his colony and family safe.
The author’s New Mexico is anything but wallpaper. It’s rich in historical details, including misery. Prior to this book, Paloma has lost her family to Comanche raiding, and Marco’s first wife and twins died of cholera. This book includes child murder, rape and sex slavery, torture, and massacres of civilian villages (both by villains and by allies, in which the protagonists do not intervene.) I’ve read YA Dystopian settings which seem less bleak than 1780s New Mexico. Kelly has written about dark and violent experiences before, but something about her handling of these in a Regency setting felt more optimistic to me. Perhaps because I know that Regency England is heading for a long stretch of peace, I can feel like the characters have come through the worst, and their healing sets them on the path for a pleasant future. By contrast, with the dire characterization of New Mexico, I had trouble seeing a happy future for these colonists. Personally, this is not a setting I would choose to visit again in fiction (although I’m curious to read a history book on the topic.)
Nearly every character makes a moral choice which bothered me. After rescuing a Comanche slave by buying her, it does not occur to Marco to set her free (he tells her later that once he takes his money back from Great Owl, they will be even.) He and his helpers accept and perpetrate torture and murder if it is expeditious. One of the protagonists recalls raping women in the past. Harsh times and places do make harsh people, but personally, I’d rather read nonfiction about that and use fiction for a happier escape. If you don’t mind or are interested to try protagonists who torture and execute, I think you’ll still be frustrated that Paloma somehow manages to avoid any dark choices. In fact, it’s the opposite: her shining goodness charms rough frontier men into personal hygiene and moral reform. It felt dated. I do credit Kelly for populating her frontier with authentic diversity, including a number of Native American groups. There are not only multiple tribes but subgroups within tribes, and some individuals going their own way.
This is not the only reason I think a reader seeking a rich, dark setting will still quibble with Paloma. When, after hearing another round of horrible stories, Paloma jokingly asks Marco why they are still in New Mexico, all I could think was, “GOOD QUESTION, PALOMA.” I would have liked to have seen a stronger answer to this question. I felt Marco’s affection for the place, but given the fear he felt every time he came home that he’d find his family dead again, I thought not even considering a move was odd. Yes, you like the sunset, Marco. But you also like your wife alive.
This book doesn’t have a central romance. Marco and Paloma have already gotten together, and a secondary romance doesn’t begin until halfway through the book. Marco and Paloma spend most of the book apart, which I thought was a good thing. The opening chapter describing their wedded bliss, complete with perfect sex, perfect children, and a pregnancy reveal, read like bad epilogue. Their relationship does not need to grow because they already adore each other and do not ever disagree, and that is a bit stagnant.
Kelly’s author voice is different from the plain-speaking one she uses in her Harlequins: more elaborate, and with more formal word choices. Some people may enjoy it, and I didn’t mind it in the dialogue, where it felt authentic. In narration, though, I found it overwritten in comparison with her simpler previous style. The book is sprinkled with Spanish. If you don’t speak Spanish, you may find it difficult, because the English meaning of the inserted words is not always clear and there is no glossary. There was also at least one error, when a man called his nephew “primo,” which means “cousin,” instead of “sobrino.”
In giving the grade, I am trying not to fault Kelly for my tastes and look at the book as if I were someone who enjoyed violent stories, morally ambiguous decisions by protagonists, and stories without central romances. I arrived at a B+ because I think it is a strong book but still objectively flawed. That being said, personally, I’ll be sticking to Kelly’s Harlequin Westerns and Regencies from now on.