The Devil's Cut
First things first: this is not a stand-alone book. If you have any interest in this soap opera of a Kentucky bourbon dynasty, then you must start at the beginning, The Bourbon Kings. And if you’ve been missing Young and the Restless or are a lover of Coronation Street, lawd alive, I’d recommend this series. It’s so soapy it nearly slid off my Kindle, and I say that with love and gratitude. It’s a fun – if completely insane – ride, and The Devil’s Cut is a worthy conclusion.
As for a plot summary, the best I can offer without falling down too many rabbit holes is this: Lane Ballantine is the newly and reluctantly crowned head of one of the largest bourbon companies in the world. After eschewing a life of galavanting and gambling, he’s returned to Kentucky and has hunkered down. You see, the mammoth company is all of a sudden on the brink of bankruptcy, and as Lane tries to unravel the reasons for it, he discovers secrets that make his toes curl and forges a new definition of family.
In this concluding novel, Ms. Ward puts her foot on the gas on page one and doesn’t let up for the four hundred odd pages of the journey. We find out exactly how the company became insolvent, we meet secret family members, we discover who exactly is behind the murder of the family patriarch and then learn that he may not have been the patriarch after all! If someone ripped off a wig and threw someone in a pool à la Melrose Place, I would not even have batted an eyelash.
I lived in Kentucky for my college years and there are pieces of the culture which Ward captures well. The rivalry between University of Kentucky (school color: blue, school mascot: wildcat) and University of Louisville (school color: red, school mascot: cardinal) is translated into fictionalized town names here, but anyone familiar with state will recognize it immediately. The way the racing schedule often determines the social calendar, the socioeconomic divides, the urban/rural dichotomy of a state that strives to be modern but whose economy is still largely centered on agriculture – there’s enough hints of those in here that I felt comfortable in the world. There are spots that ground the reader amidst the circus Ms. Ward has constructed and, for me, it’s just enough to allow me to lose myself in the chaos of the rest of the story.
It’s not a perfect book, and my grade is based on the amount of fun I had reading how everything works out and not necessarily on how excellent a piece of literature the work is. Ms. Ward ties loose ends well, I could see how things were plotted, and I admired the craft required to pull off this ambitious, sprawling drama.
One of the things I could not get past is the character Lane refers to as ‘Mama’ (but whose given name is Miss Aurora Toms), who is as close to a literal interpretation of the ‘mammy’ archetype as I’ve seen since The Help. (This trope, for those unfamiliar, is about a black woman, usually overweight and older, who is responsible for the raising of the white children in the story. She rarely has her own children and instead has dedicated her life to the children of her boss or master, depending on the time period. She’s less of a human being and more of a cipher.) I was taken out of the story whenever there were interactions with her, but if Ms. Ward intentionally crafted her as a trope to show the ridiculousness of the family dynamics of the Ballantine clan, then I appreciate the effort. It just didn’t work completely, and instead the character is not an independent person whom we get to know, even though she is in such a prominent emotional position in the lives of the main characters. In this world, Mama serves as both an ideal and a sacrificial lamb and the use of her to evoke decadent Southern settings just felt… off. I wish we could have gotten her PoV, perhaps she would then have seemed more human and less two-dimensional.
Overall, as I said at the top, The Devil’s Cut is a soapy, dramatic romp, grounded by one man and his passion for getting his family back together and planning for a future. If you’re looking for an immersive read, The Bourbon Kings as a series may just scratch that itch.