Wide Open by Deborah Coates

“When Sergeant Hallie Michaels comes back to South Dakota from Afghanistan on ten days’ compassionate leave, her sister Dell’s ghost is waiting at the airport to greet her.

The sheriff says that Dell’s death was suicide, but Hallie doesn’t believe it. Something happened or Dell’s ghost wouldn’t still be hanging around. Friends and family, mourning Dell’s loss, think Hallie’s letting her grief interfere with her judgment.

The one person who seems willing to listen is the deputy sheriff, Boyd Davies, who shows up everywhere and helps when he doesn’t have to.

As Hallie asks more questions, she attracts new ghosts, women who disappeared without a trace.  Soon, someone’s trying to beat her up, burn down her father’s ranch, and stop her investigation.

Hallie’s going to need Boyd, her friends, and all the ghosts she can find to defeat an enemy who has an unimaginable ancient power at his command.”

This is the second fantasy novel that I’ve read that features a female soldier returning home from overseas.  Hallie is a combat veteran, traumatized by what happened in Afghanistan and presenting an incredibly tough exterior to the world.  I have no idea what it’s like to be a woman in the army, so I can’t judge if this is an accurate portrayal, but sometimes Hallie comes across as too stubborn for her own good.  She often hares off on her own to do what she thinks needs doing, and there were a couple of times that I got frustrated at her actions.  Most of the time, though, I appreciated her no-nonsense handling of some pretty serious stuff.

The setting is what really drew me into this book.  The wide plains of South Dakota seem particularly suited to a ghost story, with their isolation and loneliness, and the sense of space that never ends.  That much open land makes you feel insignificant, and some of that creeps through into Hallie’s dealings with the ghosts.  Just as the setting emphasizes the starkness of the land, Hallie’s interactions with the spirits emphasize the existential terror of dealing with the other side.

On the opposite end of the spectrum setting-wise is the small town of Prairie City.  Coates really pulled together the kind of details that make the town feel like an actual place that you can visit.  It’s not that she describes everything in minute detail; rather, she captures the feel of a small town, both its good points and its bad points.  It’s good to have that to set against the miles of open space surrounding it.

As for the plot, I liked that it wasn’t just a case of “I see dead people” and having to deal with it.  There are other strange things going on in her small town and Hallie gets drawn into events far beyond anything she could have dreamed of.  There was a bit of contrast shown between the things going on in South Dakota versus what she went through in Afghanistan, in the sense that she always feels like she’s measuring herself against an invisible foe.  This gives her the gumption to really dig into the mystery inherent in the plot and try to deal with it proactively.

Finally, I liked that the possible love interest with Boyd, the sheriff, was kept to a minimum in this first novel.  It’s enough to establish their separate characters at this point without tangling them up together.  Adding in a romance would have pushed the novel into the trap of trying to do too much at once.  There’s plenty of stuff going on already!

Wide Open is not a typical supernatural novel.  The setting is unique, and the main character is tough and unapologetic about who and what she is.  If you like your ghost stories eerie instead of shocking, this is the book for you.

This review was originally posted on June 19, 2013.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

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