by Jax Miller
Trade Paperback, 308 pg.
Broadway Books, 2015
Read: February 19 – 20, 2016
The open road gives you ample opportunity to think; in fact, the road forces reflection on a man . . . or woman, in my case. And it’s a terrifying thing, my thoughts. With each thought, each idea, each regret that makes my blood curdle, I accelerate, I race fast enough on the motorcycle so my demons can’t catch me, but they always seem just a step ahead of the game, always there to entertain my sin.
Ugh. This book set my teeth on edge from the get-go. Yet another story with a Prologue that puts our narrator in a life-or-death situation, so you can turn the page to get “X period if time earlier” (two weeks ago, in this case) to create suspense, or a sense of anticipation, or whatever. I hate those beginnings, books, movies, TV – – hate ’em all. They’re almost never worth it. This is one of those times, Chapter 1 is a much better starting point.
Once we get past that nonsense, we meet Freedom. She’s a tough-as-nails bartender outside of Portland, OR, working in a bar that’s been adopted by a biker gang. The first thing we see Freedom do, is save a girl from being raped by a large biker in a way that will keep you nervous around McIlhenny Co.’s signature product for awhile. So you know it’s not just bluster, it’s not just attitude and language — Freedom is not someone to mess around with. It turns out that Freedom’s in the Witness Protection Program, and the same Marshals that come by to tell her to stay out of trouble, are also here to let her know that the man she put away just got out on a technicality after 18 years.
It’s almost like they know that someone had gained access to their records and that her new identity is known by all the people she doesn’t want to know. Namely, her murdered husband’s family, including his newly released brother and his non-incarcerated brothers. The destruction and violence that come to Oregon are a clear sign to Freedom that the Delaney brothers are here for her and the Feds can’t help her. So she takes matters into her own hands, because it’s not just her that they’re after. She had two children with her husband, and had been forced to give them up. If her new identity is known, their identities would be, too. So she’s off to the other side of the country to try to keep them safe, although there’s enough drama in their lives without their uncles coming for them.
That’s enough of the plot to whet your appetite. It gets better from there — more twists and turns than the Publisher’s Description suggests. I can’t imagine that Miller could’ve fit in one more twist without needing to add a couple of chapters. But before you get to all that, you have to endure a lot of Miller setting up her dominoes. It was hard to slog through it all without enough context and many perspective changes (I think we could’ve just used a smidgen more context with each perspective). But you watched her set them all up, because you could tell all along that when they started to fall, things were going to be wild.
I don’t want to talk about the characters — seeing them revealed was a lot of the fun. There’s one exception to that: Freedom’s Mother-in-Law, Lynn. I felt like I needed a shower after reading the first 2 pages of with Lynn — one of the nastiest characters you’ll come across in 2016. I hoped right away that Lynn would get what’s coming to her (and that feeling only intensified). But you could tell straight-away that this was the kind of book where just desserts weren’t on the menu for everyone (oh man, when did I become Horatio Caine?), and I had to deal with this sense of dread that she’d make it. There’s a certain amount of pleasure you get from Hannibal surviving The Silence of the Lambs (but not Hannibal — while waiting Lynn’s fate, you feel the exact opposite.
This next paragraph, I’m a little apprehensive about, but I’m going to go ahead and write it: There’s a cult involved, and I have a little trouble with it (as I write it, I’m sure with some research every one of my objections can be brushed aside by someone, and I’m hoping Jax Miller is one such person). The cult reminded me of a phenomena I ran into with Flannery O’Connor in college — her Southern Protestants may have sounded like typical Baptists/Methodists/etc., but their thinking was awfully Roman Catholic. These cultists looked, sounded, and acted like Pentecostal Christians, but they were infused with an odd amount of Roman Catholic practices. So much so that it was hard to swallow. It almost felt like someone took a bunch of noticeably religious practices and terms and mixed together, assuming the reader would just accept the blend, whether or not it was consistent. I’d absolutely believe it if someone could point to a Group Z and said that Miller just ripped them off, but absent that these guys were too much to believe.
This was a well-constructed and satisfying read with characters that leapt off the pages (except for the minor Delaney brothers and a couple of other miscellaneous people). It didn’t end anything like I expected it would, but superior. I spent the whole time thinking it was a book about X, when it was about Y all along (although, it was kind of about X). The novel makes you think it’s about revenge (or the escaping from it), but at the end of the day, that’s just not what it’s concerned with. This was an entertaining read, maybe not as good as it could’ve been, but enough to make me to keep my eyes peeled for Jax Miller’s future work.
Disclaimer: I received this book from the good people at Blogging for Books for this review.