Review – Empire of Wild

Cherie Dimaline
A First Nation’s Rogarou tale of lost love and salvation.
(CWs below)

You know, I wish I had picked a different title to start with here. I read Cherie Dimaline’s Empire of Wild over the course of several months. That ARC *lived* in my backpack, just waiting to be picked up again. It took a while. To be honest, I struggled with reading for much of the lockdown, and after it, just because I was too overworked to think much outside of what’s for dinner, and what thing do I need to do next for the kids or pets or house.

Anyway, once I got back into it, this was a quick read, and one I’ve thought about extensively. I think if I had been reading this book outside of a writer’s perspective, I would have enjoyed it more. It’s a good story, and it addresses a lot of First Nations issues head on – struggles with racism, pressures for development, and balancing tradition with the need to provide, for starters. It is woman-centered, and as Dimaline says, the women have agency and authority in their lives. This is to be celebrated.

On the other hand, a lot of that agency seems focused on sex. Actually, most of the adult characters – male and female – are focused on sex. It’s a frequently recalled or longed for activity, and I think while it is a driving force of the story, it does little more than providing character motivation, avoiding any serious thematic exploration of desire or power. And as such, I think it distracted from the story.

There are points of great luminosity in the prose itself. Sometimes the book just sings along, painting bright images, places and scenes you feel you could almost immerse yourself in. Other times, however, the book is very self conscious, and I think it ultimately loses itself to this along the way. The plot and character development seem a little perfunctory, and the ending is not a great challenge to predict. Perhaps this is borne out of the author’s previous work in YA, but regardless, I found the story slipping away from me, and the ending a little pat and abrupt, its resolution emotionally detached. On a personal level, I found the ending particularly frustrating – [mild spoiler alert] – that perhaps the betrayal was not the youth’s, but his mother’s – an idea alluded to by the author herself earlier in the text.

Dimaline is a “young author” and you can see that in her prose, where it falters. She sets a good story, however, and I wouldn’t mind reading another book by her in the future.

CW – animal abuse, parental abandonment, drug use, alcohol use, violence

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