A pox-orphaned adolescent named Matthew (Mattie) must navigate his way through the brutal American West, eventually becoming a sheriff and revenging the death of innocent victims of a local gang while finding the courage to love unreservedly.
DEADMAN’S LAMENT marries the unforgiving texture of the violent frontier with an unusually tender, emotionally vulnerable protagonist. Mattie’s early heartbreak of being orphaned by a gambling father and watching his mother die of small pox quickly pales in comparison to nearly avoiding rape, scalping, and deathly illness at the hands of criminals, psychopaths, and the simply deranged. His longstanding confrontation with an unruly gang called Top Hat and the Mad Hatters fuels the action at the center of the book.
While the book traffics in racial and sexual stereotypes that can be stomached on the basis of being “historically accurate,” the one-dimensional nature of the antagonists in comparison to the slightly more complex emotional make-up of Mattie makes the book feel somewhat lopsided. While Mattie is no angel (despite being a sheriff, he’s not above sleeping with a whore every now and again) his clear-eyed survey of violence and determination to right the wrongs against any innocent person or creature make him a hero in the classic sense. His conflict with opening himself fully to love is hardly original, but in Jeppsen’s hands it is compelling. While the author can occasionally break the quasi-mythical fourth wall of the Western with jarringly contemporary sentences like “he was too young to feel sexual tension,” she elegantly conveys the atmospheric sense of space and unbounded limits of human violence, love, and adventure.
Oddly, DEADMAN’S LAMENT distinguishes itself among books of this kind for its sheer number of rape sequences, both male and female. A scalping sequence is notable not only for its graphic depiction of the act, but for the inventive way in which Mattie attempts to save the victim.
A solid entry in the genre of Western fiction, DEADMAN’S LAMENT satisfies with its earthy landscapes, true-arrow heroes, and bestial, gore-spattered villains.
Reviewed by Julia Lai for IndieReader.