Pieces of Sky
by Kaki Warner
(Sensation, $15, PG-13) ISBN 978-0-425-23214-9
Just last month, when reviewing Jodi Thomas’ latest release, I was bemoaning the disappearance of the western historical romance.  Imagine my surprise when two of the books I received to review this month were westerns, one by  popular author Catherine Anderson (who had abandoned the subgenre for contemporaries) and another by new author, Kaki Warner.   Also interesting is the way that Berkley has chosen to introduce their new writer, via a trade paperback.  Neither the striking cover nor the title scream “romance,” so perhaps the publisher is aiming for a broader audience.  (Although if they are trying to disguise the story’s roots, the blurb gives this away.)  I hope this possible ploy does not keep Pieces of Sky from its natural audience.  Romance readers will surely appreciate this well told and engrossing tale.

Like many novels that seek to illuminate life in the old west, Pieces of Sky makes use of the outsider whose experiences with this rough world show those of us viewing it from the comforts of the 21st century just how stark and hard life was in New Mexico Territory in 1869.  The last place Miss Jessica Thornton of Bickersham Hall, Northumberland, ever thought she would find herself is in a stagecoach rattling across the southwestern desert.  She is a lady of impeccable breeding who has written numerous pamphlets on the proper behavior for ladies.  Yet her current situation is highly improper.  She is fleeing the villain who has violently abused her and she is carrying the child of his assault.  That he is the husband of her sister makes the situation even more dire.  Her only hope is that she can find refuge with her brother, who emigrated to New Mexico years before.

Brady Wilkins joins the other passengers in the stagecoach after losing his horse to an atypical careless mishap.  Jessica is unimpressed by the new arrival; he is dirty, unshaven, and uncouth.  He has no idea how a gentleman should behave.  Yet when the stage has a dreadful accident, Brady demonstrates attributes that are much better suited to the situation.  He is brave, strong, resourceful and capable.  Thanks to his skills, Jessica and four other passengers are rescued.  Jessica finds herself at Brady’s ranch, RosaRoja and is introduced to a very different world.

For over a decade, since he was twenty-three, Brady has dedicated himself to the ranch his father claimed from its former Mexican owner and to his two younger surviving brothers.  The Wilkins family has paid a heavy price for the ranch and for the enmity of the son of its former owner, Sancho Ramirez.  Ten years earlier, Sancho had been sent to the territorial prison for his crimes against the Wilkins family.  Now Brady has discovered that he has been freed.  Brady knows Sancho will be back to exact further vengeance.

When Jessica loses consciousness after her ordeal during the stage accident, the doctor who examines her makes a startling discovery.  Yes, she is pregnant but it sure looks to the doctor as if she will be having twins.  He strongly advises that she not travel further for her and the babies’ sakes.  When Jessica discovers that her brother has left New Mexico – apparently for the new territory of Alaska – she has little choice but to remain at RosaRoja.

One of the most attractive features of Pieces of Sky is that Warner allows the relationship between Jessica and Brady to develop slowly and naturally.  Yes, Brady is attracted to the feisty woman with her red hair and her proper manners and her strange accent.  But over the weeks that follow their meeting, he learns her story and comes to appreciate her bravery in the face of great adversity.  Yes, Jessica early on recognizes that there is more to Brady than her first, unfavorable impression might have suggested.  But it takes time and familiarity for her to understand exactly how good and lovable Brady is.  The reader truly understand why this two seemingly ill-matched people fall in love.

Warner, through Jessica’s eyes, provides an unsparing picture of the harsh life on the southwestern frontier.  Brady and his brothers face daily challenges which are only heightened by the threat of Sancho that looms over them.  But the author also, through Jessica’s eyes, paints a vivid picture of the beauty of this harsh land and the freedom it offers those who can tame its wildness.

If Warner uses some fairly typical authorial devices to introduce conflict into the relationship between Jessica and Brady and to provide the happy ending that the two deserve, well, that was fine with me.  I very much enjoyed reading this story.

Pieces of Sky is the first of a planned trilogy with the next two books featuring Brady’s brothers, Hank and Jack.  I will certainly keep my eyes out for the next two installments in the Wilkins family saga.  This is a most promising first novel.

--Jean Mason

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