A Longer Fall by Charlaine Harris
Charlaine Harris’s GUNNIE ROSE series has already merged Old West, Russian magicians (called “grigori” in a nod to Rasputin), and alternative history; the setting is mid-twentieth century North America, in which the United States has fractured into multiple nations, including the “Holy Russian Empire,” with Tsar Alexei at its head, taking over what used to be California and Oregon. In A Longer Fall (2020), the second book in the series, the pre-civil rights era deep South gets pulled into the mix. Lizbeth Rose, a 19-year-old gunnie (gunslinger), is traveling by train with her new security crew from Texoma, the Texas region Lizbeth calls home, to Louisiana. Their crew of five is in charge of transporting and protecting a crate that contains … well, they don’t know, but it’s vastly important for some reason, and apparently everybody and their dog wants what’s in that crate. It’s all nice and boring — other than a gunfight that’s over as quickly as it began — until the train blows up. Their train car tumbles sideways, people with knives and guns and smoke bombs attack, and Lizbeth and her crew try desperately to save the precious crate from being stolen.
Now Lizbeth is stuck in the small town of Sally, Louisiana, trying to figure out how to complete her mission when all of the other members of the Lucky (or not) Crew are dead or injured. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, she immediately runs into Ilya (Eli) Savarov, the handsome grigori that she met and clicked with in the first book, An Easy Death … thus enabling Lizbeth and readers to enjoy a side of romance along with the grimmer task of tracking down the missing crate. But Eli’s own mission in Sally overlaps with Lizbeth’s in ways that Eli can’t or won’t explain.
Lizbeth’s task is made more difficult by the townspeople’s racism and sexism. While blacks are no longer slaves in Dixie, there’s segregation and widespread prejudice. Women are expected to fall within a certain mold; Lizbeth, to her deep disgust, finds that in order to be accepted in hotels and restaurants she has to wear a dress and nice shoes rather than her jeans and boots, and hide her guns in a purse or under her skirt.
I felt like A Longer Fall had a lot of potential that it didn’t quite reach. While the novel starts with, quite literally, a bang, the whole middle section of the story dragged badly, with Lizbeth and Eli just going from place to place, eating at restaurants (southern food impresses Lizbeth and she spends an undue amount of time describing her various meals), and having mostly-pointless meetings and lots of sex. What seems to be a friends-with-benefits relationship ends up much more fraught with feelings, but it’s never entirely clear why a deeper attachment has developed between Eli and Lizbeth.
Once I hit the three-quarter mark the plot started progressing more rapidly, but the ending carries its own set of problems. A “white Savior” theme that had been simmering since the mid-point of A Longer Fall reached full boil, complete with what’s arguably a resurrection scene. If that was intentional symbolism, it was oddly done, particularly since there’s such an incongruence between a public message of brotherly love and nasty private behavior. And after this brief pause for a rousing rendition of “All You Need is Love,” the plot jumps straight back to killing people. It’s cynical and muddled, and prior plot and character development wasn’t enough to fully justify the final twist. In fact, a lot of the key plot turns needed more foundation-building, fleshing out details and exploring motivations more deeply, to make them really work. As it is, the plot relies too much on coincidences and a critical bit of deus ex machina action to move it along.
While the main plot is wrapped up in the end (although I can’t help but wonder how permanent the magic-driven resolution will be), the romantic relationship is left hanging. It’s seemingly dead but since there’s at least one more book pending in this series, it’s safe to assume Eli will be back again. I’m still interested in seeing where the series goes next — the Holy Russian Empire is my guess — but my expectations are tempered.
One final comment: It’s never clear what the title of A Longer Fall has reference to, and when I contacted Harris to ask, she demurred (“I’m having too much fun reading all the guesses”). Since I haven’t actually seen any guesses about this title online, even after searching, I’m hoping some other readers of this book will share their thoughts and ideas!
I agree with Tadiana completely. A Longer Fall reads, to me, like a novella over-inflated with fluff and repetition so that it fits a novel’s shape. (Too much sawdust in the meatloaf, as it were.) Once the action-packed introduction is completed, the story quickly falls into repetition: Lizbeth and Eli wander around town, watch people eat, eat a lot of food themselves, go back to their hotel room for sex, and then go back out and either eat or have the same circular conversations with people with no real impetus to move the plot forward. The MacGuffin itself is intriguing, and the actual implementation of the deus ex machina is both fascinating and thought-provoking, but the structural framework surrounding it — how it was maneuvered into Sally, the groups of people using it for their own purposes, the short-term and long-term effects on the people of Sally and the overall terrible situation within Dixie — has a lot of gaps in logic that I simply couldn’t overlook. There’s a pervasive White Savior theme throughout, and while I agree with the notion that the living situation for Black people in Dixie is abhorrent and change is long overdue, the methods and motivations employed in the text bothered me because so much agency was removed from the people actually being oppressed.
Moreover, Lizbeth herself is at such a disadvantage in Dixie, forced to play the role of a passive and subservient woman dependent upon men for all her needs, that she has few opportunities to sparkle and seize control of the narrative. The romance storyline is given greater prominence in this novel, but Harris does little to explain why Lizbeth and Eli, who have known each other for only a few weeks, are already at the stage of their relationship where they’re questioning where this all will ultimately lead. The pair barely trust one another, and getting him to explain why he’s in Sally is like squeezing blood from a stone, but she experiences full-on fits of jealousy when other women express interest in him. Compared to An Easy Death, when Lizbeth was an active participant in driving the narrative forward, her relegation to frustrated observer makes little sense. Again, I noticed similarities to the protagonist/paramour relationships in Harris’ other series: a young, attractive, street-smart (but not highly educated) woman with a smidge of magical ability is swept off her feet by a handsome, well-connected man who showers her with extravagant gifts and is a fantastic sexual partner, with not much more bringing them together other than great times in bed. I’m all for romance, but I hoped Lizbeth and Eli would actually get to know one other to a greater extent during their travels around Sally.
Overall, A Longer Fall was a fast and easy read, but I never felt immersed in the plot or the mysteries at play, and the motivations of various involved parties never held much water for me. I’m willing to keep reading the GUNNIE ROSE series for a while longer, to see if Harris will return to the genuine fun of the first novel, but my hopes are much more measured now.
Yep, which is why I'm willing to give a sequel a shot
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