“Whisper To The Blood – Kate Shugak #16” by Dana Stabenow

Whisper to the bloodThe last Kate Shugak book, “A Deeper Sleep” ended on an ominous note: the Aunties, the real source of all tribal authority in the Park had overstepped themselves in their response to a set of murders, endorsing vigilante “justice” and leaving themselves open to blackmail.

In “Whisper To The Blood” we see some of the consequences of the Aunties’ actions: people taking the law into their own hands, Kate being excluded from her normal “enforcer” role by the Aunties, resulting in more vigilante actions.

This disturbance of the equilibrium of the Park as the influence of the Auntie’s changes from something positive, if a little stern, into something increasingly toxic and outside of their control, is well thought through and well described. It made the Park more real to me.

It also showed me the balance that Kate Shugak always brings to her actions. Kate isn’t motivated by power or a need to be in control. She doesn’t give way to the outrage she sometimes feels. Without having to think through why, when she acts to limit harm or protect the weak, she does so with a calm fury guided by her sense of what is right. That’s what makes her respected and feared. It’s also what prevents her from understanding fully the power that she has.

“Whisper To The Blood” is packed with great scenes: a snow machine trip to remote landscapes, an attack on the river, and an encounter between Kate and a proud old man living alone in the Bush whom she deals with with a dignity, compassion and anonymity that encapsulates her values.

I enjoyed the political scenes in the book. It was fun to see the normally effortlessly competent Kate, lack the skills and knowledge to discharge her new role as Chair of the Native Association. It was even more fun to see her master it and turn the tables on the people who had been trying to make her into a clone replacement for her Grandmother.

There is one very uncomfortable scene, which would normally have been enough to make me put the book aside. Jim and Kate are fighting. Jim decides to resolve the conflict and release his frustration by having sex with Kate. Kate says “no.” Repeatedly. Loudly. With her fists. Jim doesn’t stop. I kept expecting that he would. Or that Kate would make him. After all, we’re talking about Kate Shugak here. But Jim doesn’t stop and Kate doesn’t make him.

Jim’s reason for deciding that “No” means “Yes”was that Kate switched off the stove as Jim approached her. This, according to Jim, was implicit consent.

The most surprising thing is that, the next morning, and apparently for some hours before that, Kate agreed with him.

I wasn’t sure what to make of this. In a way it was an extension of the relationship that the two of them have built: part inextinguishable desire, part refusal by either of them to give an inch and part a hope for something more and different. In another way it felt like the violation it appeared to be. An insane mix of anger and lust seems to have ensnared them both. I couldn’t make up my mind if they’ d both found release of if they’d both just broken something fragile and important.

Perhaps life is like that. Perhaps the fact that I can’t decide is a tribute to Dana Stabenow’s writing. Even so, this knocked me off-centre in a way that I didn’t enjoy.

“Whisper to the Blood” is still a good read, with a mystery at its core, Alaska as it stage, and a cast of well-rounded characters giving a first-class ensemble performance.

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