The Warrior, the Healer, and the Thief (WHT) by Diane Jean is a bite-sized, action-packed adventure across the rugged terrain of the Western United States. WHT is incredibly fun and entertaining. It re-imagines the Oregon Trail within the lens of magical realism. Chase, Mara, and Ari, three women with different motives, join forces against demonic energies and black magic as they head west. Jean avoids story-stopping exposition, relying instead on character revelation through events and flashbacks. The pacing is quick and lively, but doesn’t run roughshod over the plot. At the outset, Chase embodies the warrior, tough on the outside and a bit brisk; Mara, as the sensitive healer; and Ari as the thief, slipping in and out of sight. However, the women aren’t limited to any one job, emotion, or social category.
Magic, for the most part, possesses a practical nature in this world. People with any degree of magical ability are referred to as “users”. Many families have only enough power to aid in simple tasks, such as starting a campfire. Other people use their magic to attain political power, while others pursue more insidious occupations. Magic does not prevent drowning or dysentery or any other common ailment on the road.
The mythical creatures that populate this world integrate seamlessly into the rugged terrain of the Oregon Trail, a place that seems almost mystical and unreal to people on the East Coast. These creatures transform into flesh and blood, beak and claw, among the mountains, sagebrush, and canyons. They mingle with more familiar animals, such as bison. Thunderbirds terrorize from the skies; wild hodags threaten from the ground; and herds of bison plow through the fields. Cue our early season wagon party, featuring the Warrior, the Healer, and the Thief.
Chase Templeton (never, ever call her Chastity) descends from a prestigious line of Old World dragon slayers. Although this is all ancient history by the time Chase was born, this badass shortie still finds uses for her family’s extensive weapons training and magical beast lore. Early on, Chase recoils from the idea of living a conventional, stay-at-home-and-get-married kind of life. She loves the rugged terrain and the colorful people who call west of the Mississippi their home. For her, wilderness and civilization are a state-of-mind, an opinion she shares with her companions. Every wagon train she guides west is full of people she believes are escaping past lives, their hopes pinned on the shimmering horizon. Chase’s personal conflicts with the expectations laid out for her by her family and her own beliefs, play out along the trail.
After years of fruitless supplication to the Goddess, Mara (née Aurora Nacht) flees Princeton Seminary and her illustrious family, and hits the open road heading west. West is the land with all the answers, at least that’s what she wants to believe. When she signs up for a wagon party leaving Independence, Missouri, she strives to keep a low profile. Her education and upbringing allow her to pose as a missionary out to spread the word of the Goddess. She values her faith, but doesn’t push it onto others. As her fellow travelers risk injury and death, Mara’s resolve to stay silent on her identity and personal mission, weakens. Mara is a character that, written another way, could have ended up mousy and dry. Instead, she channels newfound strength, while retaining her empathic qualities.
Enter the third member of this dynamic trio: Ari. Ari’s jocularity, wide open heart, and special ability, help her survive and thrive. She wants snuggles, bright lights, company, and sexy good times, not pity and loneliness. Ari doesn’t define herself by the obstacles and sinister forces that seek her soul. Her journey reflects her struggle to keep dark elements at bay. Racism and slavery still exist in this alternate Oregon Trail universe. The amorphous evil that follows first Ari’s mother, and then Ari herself, originates on the plantation from which her mother escaped before Ari was born. After performing a few favors for the New Orleans’ elite, Ari learns from Io, an elderly witch, how slaves were used against each other to enact punitive measures. Ari’s mother and Io the witch gift her with tools that enable and drive her forward. The story doesn’t linger on slavery, but it does give you some idea of how it affects the Ari and her mother.
As the narratives of these women unfold, their lives become increasingly intertwined. The romantic relationships I’ve read about usually involve two people and perhaps a few others known in the novel as speed bumps on the way to some kind of bliss beyond the final page. Third or fourth persons are regarded as complications, with love as a contest between opposing parties. Their burgeoning friendship and romance stutter steps over some petty jealousies, but most of those incidents arise from Chase’s initial mistrust of Ari. I think it’s pretty understandable to reserve trust from a person who pops out from under your wagon. The women don’t agonize over whether what they feel is “right” or “wrong”. Instead of stalling the story with introspection, the romance is one of many elements that move the story forward. The trio becomes closer over the course of events despite differences in their backgrounds and personalities. All of the elements of a meaningful relationship are present, but the women, apart from Ari, have no frame of reference for emotional and sexual unions among three persons, so they don’t fully recognize the possibility at first. They help each other grow into the best possible version of themselves. Nothing about their relationship feels forced or tacked on. It develops as organically as the rest of the story.
The tale is complete as a stand-alone volume, but has enough leeway for a sequel. I’m crossing my fingers for a sequel or maybe some prequels! If you love adventure, the extraordinary mixed with the pedestrian, and history seasoned with magic, then what are you still doing reading this review? Hitch up your internet oxen and get your copy today! And then go play Oregon Trail.
Available from Less Than Three Press’s website as an e-book, as well as from Barnes & Noble and Amazon (e-book and paperback formats).
Oregon Trail → Internet Archive at https://archive.org/details/msdos_Oregon_Trail_The_1990