In An Easy Death (2018) the first book of her latest series, GUNNIE ROSE, Charlaine Harris introduces readers to Lizbeth Rose, a nineteen-year-old “gunnie” (gunslinger) living in what was once the United States of America — until Franklin Roosevelt was assassinated before becoming the thirty-second President, and the ensuing chaos fractured the country into different regions, each with their own laws and social codes. Operating with a crew as a gun for hire is lucrative work, should a body live long enough to receive payment, whether that’s guiding folks across the border from Texoma into New America, engaging in firefights with bandits, or hunting down the dangerous grigori (wizards) who flourish under the auspices of the Holy Russian Empire’s strongholds on the West Coast.
Lizbeth’s latest job is to protect two Russian wizards hunting a renegade grigori, suspected to be hiding somewhere among the border towns or even in Mexico proper, and whose blood might be the key to prolonging Tsar Alexei’s life. The Russians have access to a range and depth of sorcery Lizbeth can only imagine, along with decades of deeply-kept secrets, and Lizbeth has a lifetime of secrets tucked close within her vest, so their time rumbling up and down dusty roads is ripe for meaningful glances across campfires and hushed conversations barely overheard through thin hotel walls. Each step closer to the Russians’ goal brings the trio closer to risking death — but will it be the “easy death” gunnies wish one another, or something more tortured and terrible?
I’d been looking for an easy read lately, something that would entertain me for an afternoon or two and keep my interest without requiring a huge investment, and An Easy Death fit the bill perfectly. Harris’s worldbuilding is intriguing and provides just enough hints about how this world is different from our own while leaving room for expansion into details regarding the contemporary state of, say, Europe or South America. (I have a lot of questions about the novel’s approximate timeline, the global effect of America’s Deconstruction period, and what happened to the Weimar Republic during the European political/magical upheaval after the Russian imperial family fled to what was once California. I’m curious to see whether and how Harris continues to explore the larger implications of sorcery’s effect on the world in subsequent novels.)
Fair warning: An Easy Death relies on mentions of sexual assault as both character backstory and as a plot device; readers might want to keep this in mind when considering this title. For myself, this seemed like an unnecessarily grim and heavy-handed method of repeatedly reinforcing Harris’s point that this alternate version of America is dangerous (particularly for women), in addition to the numerous and no-less-extreme ways in which daily life is already a struggle. Your mileage may vary.
Lizbeth is an appealing narrator: young enough to maintain some optimism about the world, but experienced and street-smart enough to know that nothing in life comes easy or free. Her life and her world feel fully-realized, down to her concerns over strawberries going bad in her electricity- and refrigeration-free home, and her devastating prowess with firearms comes from a lifetime of diligent practice rather than authorial flights of fancy. The pair of Russian wizards, Ilya “Eli” Savarov and Paulina Coopersmith, are fairly easy to suss out: Eli’s got a more agreeable temperament and uses his magic more subtly, while Paulina is brash and quite literally wears her symbols of power tattooed on her face. (I couldn’t stop thinking of them as slightly-tweaked versions of Eric Northman and Pam Ravenscroft from Harris’ SOUTHERN VAMPIRE MYSTERIES, and particularly, their portrayals in the HBO series True Blood.)
The mystery at An Easy Death’s heart is relatively uncomplicated, and goes toward setting up the GUNNIE ROSE series for future instalments and conflicts that will, assuredly, complicate Lizbeth’s life more than she’d like. I enjoyed traveling across Texoma and northern Mexico, and considering that the recently-published second novel, A Longer Fall, takes Gunnie into Dixie, “where social norms have stepped back into the nineteenth century,” I’m looking forward to seeing what Harris has in store for Lizbeth and her readers.
The author of the Sookie Stackhouse novels jumps into the Weird West with her latest series, GUNNIE ROSE: It’s a combination of Old West + magic + alternative history. An Easy Death appears to be set in the 1930s or 40s, but not in an era we’d recognize. When Franklin Roosevelt was assassinated before taking office, the U.S. fractured and chunks of it were claimed by other countries, including the Russian royal family taking over California and Oregon, Mexico taking back Texas, and Native Americans reclaiming much of their territory. Nineteen-year-old Lizbeth Rose is a gunslinger or “gunnie,” part of a crew that gives travelers an armed escort to protect them on their journey.
The very first thing we see Lizbeth Rose doing at the beginning of this book is cutting her hair into a pixie cut, mostly because her much older boyfriend Tarken liked it long and cutting it is her way of pushing back against his too often telling her what to do. It’s a signal of Lizbeth’s obstinacy and independence — qualities she’s going to need in the conflicts and difficulties coming her way. It’s grimly amusing that “an easy death” is the accepted way to say goodbye to a gunnie and the kind of luck they wish for.
After the Tarken Crew’s job escorting two farming families from Texas to New America takes a disastrous turn, Lizbeth — somewhat at loose ends, and financially strapped — overcomes her detest for wizards and accepts a job protecting a couple of Russian wizards or “grigori.” These wizards, Eli and Paulina, are searching for a particular Russian, Oleg Karkarov (or if not him, his descendants), whose blood is needed for transfusions to preserve the life of Tsar Alexei. Apparently the blood of Grigori Rasputin and his relatives has a salutary effect on hemophilia (it’s nice to know that in this world Rasputin was good for something). What the wizards don’t know, although Lizbeth mentions it in her narration to the reader fairly early on, is that [HIGHLIGHT TO REVEAL SPOILER] Lizbeth is actually Oleg’s daughter … and that she killed him herself, for excellent reasons [END SPOILER].
In this gritty Wild West territory, life is precarious and the lives of most people, other than the wealthy, are hardscrabble. Cars and homes with electricity exist, but they’re too expensive for most folk, including Lizbeth. Bandits and magicians are equally feared. It’s not easy for a young woman to stake out her position in this world, but Lizbeth is determined both to make her own way and to protect those who she’s responsible for.
There’s lots of action in An Easy Death, with guns blazing and magic slaying, but the book isn’t a whole lot deeper than that, and the logic of the plot got a little murky. But Lizbeth Rose is an honest, tough and appealing heroine, and her continuous adventures and struggles against opposition make for captivating if not profound reading. Like Jana, I’ll definitely follow Gunnie Rose into Dixie in the sequel, A Longer Fall, where the antebellum South has risen again.