The Wild Road
Late last year I discovered Marjorie M. Liu’s Dirk and Steele series, and read all but one of the full-length books and her short story from the Dark Dreamers anthology. That short story introduced a family of gargoyle brothers into the author’s urban fantasy romance world, and added one to the ranks of the “detectives” in the Dirk and Steele agency. Gargoyles are a species, able to cloak their true appearance through magic and bindings, that exists to protect humans from demons. The romance told in The Wild Road features another of the gargoyle brothers, who meets his heroine one night as she’s covered in blood, holding a gun, and trying to break into his car. She awoke earlier that evening with no memory of her life, caught in a burning building with dead bodies strewn about, fears that she’s committed murder, and heeds a voice inside her head telling her to run, which she does…in her bare feet.
Lannes Hannelore, who lives in general isolation in Maine, is visiting an old friend in Chicago when he discovers the beautiful amnesiac, and though circumstances look suspicious, he commits to lending her aid. He painstakingly removes the broken glass from her feet, borrows clothes from his friend for her, and refuses, gently, to allow her to run away. Lannes can see into people’s minds, and he what he sees in hers is frightening: Her memories were deliberately removed – even knowledge of her own name – leaving nothing but rudimentary knowledge behind, and no hope of retrieval.
The woman doesn’t understand why Lannes hasn’t marched her to the nearest police station, but becomes grateful he hasn’t after a note is left that leads her and Lannes to visit a strange old man. The visit turns violent; the old man shoots Lannes, who feels an intruder who apparently knows the old man take hold of the woman’s mind. In a matter of moments the intruder has caused the woman to kill the old man by imbedding a barbell in his face.
Lannes and the woman go on the run, first assisted, long-distance, by his brother, and then in person, by Rictor and Koni, two of D&S’s operatives. Koni, a crow shifter who’s appeared as a secondary character in other D&S books, continues that role here, as delightfully antagonistic as ever. On the other hand, it surprised me that Rictor was now a part of the agency. He’s appeared in other books, but with shifting loyalties, mostly involving self-preservation. He’s an intriguing character in that nobody knows precisely who or what he is, other than that he’s not mortal. It’s interesting that he finally chose a side rather than to continue shifting with the winds.
The mystery involving the woman’s loss of identity is obviously tied to those “people” who keep trying to kill them. It’s convoluted and confusing and not nearly as enjoyable as the growing relationship between her and Lannes, which takes on special depth because they communicate telepathically, often on an emotional level. The book is tied directly not only Liu’s short story in the Dark Dreamers anthology, but to Soul Song; to say more would give spoilers.
While the mystery is enough to keep the pages turning, its confusing aspects eventually led me to skim ahead so I could get back to the romance component, which is very sweet indeed. As far as heroes go, Lannes unmasked may look the craggy, brooding gargoyle, but he’s a beautiful soul. At one point Koni and Rictor share information that forces him to face his biggest fear where the woman is concerned, and it isn’t until later that he reveals how very close he came to making a drastically different decision.
Because the woman is a major part of that overly-intricate mystery, she’s tougher to assess. She’s smart, adaptable, strong, and as her story is revealed, bit by bit, she becomes all the more an empathetic character, and one deserving of happiness with Lannes.
The romance in The Wild Road is its strongest asset; were I to grade it on its own, the achingly sweet and slightly sassy love story would earn a B+. But my problems with the mystery, tying all the pieces together and keeping them straight, necessarily lowers that grade to an overall B-. Readers who haven’t read the series at all might find it easier to jump in here than readers like me, who missed the short story and/or last visited Liu’s world many months ago.