LTER: One Was a Soldier, Julia Spencer-Fleming

I do get lucky with these LTER’s.  Oh, not all – there was one self-published ESL fantasy that I doubt I’ll ever finish, and the book about writing which was extremely uneven, and Roma was not something I’d ever have bought for myself (and would have been right not to).  But then there were Chesterton and Schell and McKinley – and now, just received last week, another book I might not have bought for myself: One Was a Soldier by Julia Spencer-Fleming. 

The only reason I read this one so soon after receiving it was that I finished a couple of books, and I do always feel a subtle pressure to hurry with books I’ve received for review.  And – – What a book.  What a superlative book.  (Like how I did that?  I couldn’t decide on a superlative, so I sort of used them all.)  I’m actually a little surprised, in retrospect, that I put my name in for it, and so very glad I did.  But it doesn’t sound like me: the jacket description is interesting, but not my usual cuppa: an Iraq war veteran, Grace Fergusson, comes home after 18 months out, and finds coming home isn’t so simple as stepping off the plane.  And when a fellow vet is found dead, she won’t believe it’s suicide.  By no means does this sound bad or uninteresting – just not usually what I would pick up and spend time with.  Idiot.  

The above is the kernel of the story – but the book is a great deal more.  It *is* a story about coming back from war, and the good and wonderful and bad and ugly and impossible of readapting to being a civilian.  It’s about PTSD, and coping with it (or not), and coping with someone who has it (or not).  It’s a story about a romance, a love.  It’s a story about a murder, perhaps, and a theft, perhaps – or perhaps more than one of each.  It’s a police procedural, with a grain of cozy mixed in as amateurs get in on the detecting – which isn’t because the police are stupid or any of the other clichés.  

That’s one of the main things the book is about: avoiding clichés.  Yeah, one of the amateur detectives is Clare Fergusson, the girlfriend of the town’s chief of police (Russ Van Alstyne) – a trope you’ll find in a good half dozen series I could put my hands on.  But Clare is a helicopter pilot, is just coming home from Iraq at the start of the book, is an Episcopalian priest, with genuine faith in God if not the details of the Episcopalian rites used to honor Him, and is suffering from PTSD and dependency on assorted substances.  And she is deeply in love with Russ, a good man who is 14 years older and a Vietnam vet and an agnostic (or atheist; I don’t know how deep his disbelief runs), and who is deeply in love with her. 

The pattern of disdaining the usual ruts a story with these basic bones might fall into runs true throughout: the setting is real enough that I could call the Realtor who hopes at one point to sell Clare a house and start looking for a home in Millers Kill, New York (great name).  (Heh – there’s a community on Livejournal called “Would you really want to live in Millers Kill?”  Well, maybe not – although some of the danger of the place is effectively offset by a terrific police force…)  And the characters … There are a lot of them, and introduced rapidly enough in the beginning that I had a little trouble processing – there was some flipping back of pages as the people introduced in the first mini-chapter showed up again in the primary timeline, and as I matched Russ and Clare to the main protagonists listed on the cover.  But once I had them, I had them, and never lost track of any of them again – which is an accomplishment for a writer.  And by the end I not only knew who was who, I cared who was who and who was with whom and where and why, from Clare and Russ (on whom I’m developing a healthy crush) to the secondary and tertiary characters.  I was inwardly hopping up and down when one second-tier character was offered a wonderful opportunity.  I muttered a dismayed curse when a character only tangentially involved in the book died off-screen.  I was delighted by the main characters’ delight, and felt a cold, disappointed, sympathetic horror at the terrifically stupid and yet nastily understandable choice a secondary made – one which wounded what may be one of my new heroes.  That scene is going to haunt me – along with several others, but maybe that rejected possibility most of all.  I hate that that happened to characters I truly like – and I love that Julia Spencer-Fleming made the choices she did and made me care.  One of the greatest gifts a reader can receive is a book – or, even better, a series – in which the characters become friends, people I look forward to visiting with in rereads and catching up with in new books.   It’s pretty rare. 

I’d never read Julia Spencer-Fleming before, or heard of Clare and Russ.  I hate starting a series in the middle; it would have been fun to follow the two of them from their first meeting to One Was a Soldier.  I’m absolutely buying the preceding books in the series (possibly new: income tax refund!), but this book was one huge spoiler for the story, and seems to have resolved a lot of plotlines that run through the others.  This is a setting and these are characters which grow and change, and it will be interesting to see what things were like when this all began.  Interesting? I can’t wait. 

There may be flaws in this book, but I can’t think of any.  Any hiccups I had with it were flaws in my reading of it, not in the writing; I didn’t read the first pages with enough attention and felt foolish when I realized I had skipped the second part of a descriptive phrase, proceeding with the belief that Clare was a black woman, not “black-clad woman”.  (That’s part of the peril of starting a series at the end: I would have known Clare if I’d started at the beginning, and been as glad to see her as her parishioners.)  The non-linear story-telling used until real-time catches up with counseling-session-time threw me for a loop until I caught on and started paying close attention to the dates at the head of each section; it was not a frivolous use of time-hopping.  It took a few minutes for me, Roman Catholic born and bred, to adapt to not just a priest who is a woman but a priest who is a woman who sleeps with her boyfriend (and her homecoming both scandalized and tickled me), and also a priest who was an Army officer and helicopter pilot before her ordination and whose function in the Army isn’t as chaplain.  (Come on – is there a more fascinating character anywhere in the genre?)  I loved it.  I absolutely loved it.

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