BLOOD FIRE VAPOR SMOKE by Shann Ray
Kirkus Star

BLOOD FIRE VAPOR SMOKE

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KIRKUS REVIEW

In this collection of short stories, characters seek vengeance or strive for forgiveness.

Ray’s (Sweetclover, 2019, etc.) tale “Black Kettle” follows the titular, real-life Cheyenne chief, who fights to protect his people. Despite the tribe’s irrefutable surrender, Col. John Chivington leads a massacre at Black Kettle’s village. But the story, notwithstanding the chief’s never-ending pursuit of peace, centers on revenge against Chivington. Characters in several of the tales yearn for retribution. In “Republic of Fear,” a grandfather sends his grandson to avenge the boy’s dead father; in “The World Clean and Bright,” a young tribe member tracks down those responsible for the death of a loved one’s parents. At the same time, individuals are also forgiving. The unnamed woman of the heartrending “The Current Kings,” for example, seems willing to forgive the men who seize her with unmistakably malicious intent. And “The Debt Men” features two characters, Zach Harrelson and Phil Silven, with turmoil in their marriages. Absolution may be in the cards for both, even if only one man is truly deserving. Most of the tales unfold in Montana, including the unorthodox and curious “Love is Blindness.” In it, an affair threatens to separate a married couple, Michael White and Kristina Rosamonde, but a sudden injury will either split them apart or reunite them. A few historical figures, in addition to Black Kettle, make appearances. The protagonists of the collection’s sole poem, “City on the Threshold of Stars,” are Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík, Czech soldiers who played a part in the assassination of the Butcher of Prague, Reinhard Heydrich.

The author, a clinical psychologist who “spent part of his childhood on the Northern Cheyenne reservation,” tackles race in intelligent and sundry ways. It’s blunt in “Black Kettle,” as, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Cheyenne wish to kill Chivington while the colonel brazenly displays Native American scalps next to the United States flag. But “The Diplomat” is from the perspective of an American at an embassy in Africa; his own country’s racism sparks white guilt and a desire to help someone in need. And “Spirit of the Animal” is essentially a love story between a Cheyenne woman, Bird In Ground, and Jeroen, a white man she aids after he narrowly survives a wolverine attack. Ray aptly establishes characters who boast distinctive personalities and complex family ties. In “The Hunger, the Light,” Jakob hates his abusive parents, who, in turn, despise each other while in “Fourteen Types of Belief,” gifted college basketball player Everett Highwalker takes inspiration from his dead half-Cheyenne father. While the stories have their share of hatred and death, the book doesn’t succumb to despondency. Myriad characters are steadfast in their beliefs, a stance that promotes strength. This is further exemplified by the author’s prose, which is poetic even when describing the harsh elements some Cheyenne families face in “Black Wound”: “Northward still, flurries of snow placed white ledges on the limbs of trees and as the band progressed the sky turned dense until land and sky were one and the edges of the world had smoothed into a blanket under which their dreams and desires slept like animals of a forgotten country, like bears under the dark of den and breath.”

Incisive and riveting tales with a diverse cast courtesy of a skillful, expressive author.

Pub Date: June 4th, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-947021-94-5
Page count: 210pp
Publisher: Unsolicited Press
Program: Kirkus Indie
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