Wolf Haven, by Lindsay McKenna

21 Sep
Cover for Wolf Haven shows a white man wearing a shearling coat, a stetson, and a bit of scruff. In the background, prairie, a barn, and horses at sunset.

This is my entry for SuperWendy’s TBR Challenge this month–the theme is animals, and I’m just going with the title here. (Just kidding; there’s a wildlife refuge thing happening, mostly on the side.)

Reader beware: graphic descriptions of torture and heavy PTSD; glorification of the U.S. military; racism through the “model minority” stereotype for Native Americans and the “hellscape drug narco territory” for Latin America; autistic child as inspiration porn; sex on the page.

Wolf Haven by Linday McKenna

Long ago, I came across Ms McKenna’s category series Morgan’s Mercenaries and liked the first few quite a bit, for many reasons. It seemed to me that she dealt with fairly heavy subjects in a more realistic and sensitive manner than many genre writers.

A quarter of a century elapsed between the writing of those books and the publication of this one, and I wanted to see whether the author’s voice held up for me. (Spoiler alert: it didn’t.)

This novel is contemporary to the time of its release (2014). Both of the main characters have seen, and been wounded, in action, and both have PTSD.

Also, this is the ninth entry in McKenna’s Wyoming series, so there are a few references to previous events and characters, though that’s not as intrusive as it can be in other series.

Which is good, because there are plenty of other problems with this book.

Such as substituting character development with cliches like, “SEAL feelings” and “SEAL intuition” and so on and so forth; or saying that someone likes the outdoors and animals, or has (mystical) inner strength, because their mother is “full-blood Cheyenne” (see footnote 1).

Here’s the blurb:

She’s caught in her past until he shows her a future… 

Some things can never be forgotten. A helicopter crash in Afghanistan. Capture. Torture. Now U.S. Navy nurse Skylar Pascal is struggling to regain control of her life after a trauma that nearly destroyed her. After losing so much, an ideal job at the Elk Horn Ranch in Wyoming offers Sky something she thought she’d never find again…hope. 

Former SEAL Grayson McCoy has his own demons. But something about Elk Horn’s lovely-yet-damaged new nurse breaks something loose. Compassion—and passion. And even as Gray works with Sky to piece her confidence back together, something deeper and more tender begins to unfurl between them. Something that could bring her back to life. 

But not even the haven of Elk Horn Ranch is safe from dangers. And all of Sky’s healing could be undone by the acts of one malicious man….

Ms McKenna served in the military; her bio at FantasticFiction says that she’s “a veteran of the Vietnam War”. This cuts both ways: her portrayal of veterans’ war traumas tends to be spot on, and she’s sensitive about the macho “take it like a man”/”at least you are alive” culture of the military.

The other side is that she glorifies the military and veterans. They are *all* hardworking and honest and good–and the fact that the military will give someone with disabling PTSD six months of therapy then kick them out into the world to fend for themselves in 2014, like they did in the 1970s, is mentioned but never contextualized or criticized.

Which is definitely a choice, because Sky is looking for a job at Iris Mason’s “dude ranch” out of desperation: she received a medical discharge while still suffering from debilitating PTSD. However many months later, she’s broke and desperately looking for a job–any job. (At about 12% into the story, she tells Gray, “I’ve never been this poor”, and boy, isn’t that an indictment on a country that sends young people to die over financial interests in other nations, but won’t care for them once they’ve been damaged in its wars.)

Moving on…

Gray is dealing with both PTSD and guilt over the murder of his wife; Sky is the first woman since that he’s felt attracted to, and he also feels very protective of her as he sees her struggle with her own PTSD.

One of the things I remember Ms McKenna doing well was to show growth in her male characters, and there are some hints of this in Gray. At one point he compares his reaction to his late wife’s tears (literally, to leave the house), to his reaction to Sky’s. “He couldn’t handle it then. But now…He’d matured fast.”

Another good thing Ms McKenna does here, and that she was doing as early as the late 1980s, is to have the characters actually talk to each other, not just about their individual issues, but about their feelings towards each other, and about how said issues influence or derail their developing relationship.

Also, let’s hear it for treating consent in a sexual context as an ongoing thing, as well as a frank discussion of protection from unwanted pregnancy.

Unfortunately, the characters feel more like stand-ins for some mythical idea of military personnel/veterans, than fully developed individuals in their own right (see footnote 2).

By this I mean, at all times in the characters’ internal dialogue, they think of each other in the context of their military service. As Gray is bringing Sky down from a flashback, lecturing himself not to come on to her until she’s stronger, he thinks “she was a veteran, like him”. Meanwhile, Sky is all about how she’s glad to be feeling some sort of sexual attraction again, while also marveling that at being “the recipient of a SEAL’s guardianship”.

On top of this, a number of plotlines are set up, then just fizzle in a most unsatisfactory manner; add an obsession with motherhood and a surprise pregnancy, and I’m left wanting less filler and more character development.

(A different, relatively minor quibble is some repetition of facts and relationships, often from the same character in the same conversation; as the file I read is an ARC, these may have been corrected by the time the novel was published.)

Wolf Haven tries to do many things, and it ends up doing none of them well.

6.00 out of 10

* * * *

1 The emphasis on “Native American blood” is grating, but the use of “full-blood (tribe)” brings to mind the Indian blood/quantum blood laws the U.S. government has historically imposed on First Nation peoples in order to separate, isolate, and dehumanize them.

2 The word I was looking here, for hours, and that I didn’t find until four days after writing the review, is “archetype”.

8 Responses to “Wolf Haven, by Lindsay McKenna”

  1. whiskeyinthejar 21/09/2022 at 2:23 PM #

    Such as substituting character development with cliches like, “SEAL feelings” and “SEAL intuition” and so on and so forth;

    Huge pet peeve of mine! I think why we’re seeing push back on tropes being used this way too. Give me the words and characterization, that’s the meat of the story I’m here for.

    • azteclady 21/09/2022 at 2:36 PM #

      I might not have minded if the SEAL thing had been used once when pertinent–like, say, “he moved noiselessly, like the SEAL he was” or some such. Instead we get SEAL feelings, SEAL gut, SEAL intuition, blah blah blah.

  2. Holly 21/09/2022 at 9:33 PM #

    The glorification of the military and veterans in romance is a whole thing that I don’t love. The whole marveling that she was so lucky to merit the guardianship of a SEAL…Like. What?

    • azteclady 21/09/2022 at 10:37 PM #

      It’s explained early on that a SEAL Team rescued Sky from the Taliban group that had held and tortured her for two weeks (not Gray, but his old mates, because of course), so there is an element of hero worship of the SEALs on her part–but that makes it all the more difficult for me to believe in a romance between these two, who don’t see each other as individuals but as a larger…thing!…that they represent to each other.

  3. willaful 22/09/2022 at 1:28 AM #

    Aw, not even a shifter romance!

    • azteclady 22/09/2022 at 1:33 AM #

      oh, how I cackled!

      And don’t think I didn’t consider it (I have a number of them, including the next book in the Legend of All Wolves series that was my February entry for the TBR Challenge), but I’ve spent some time this past week going over my ungodly and unwieldy digital TBR shelves, and decided to go all in: this is the oldest title in it that fit the theme.

  4. S. 22/09/2022 at 5:00 AM #

    It seems that this one was, pretty much, only average to you despite one or two good elements. At least that is how I read the 6 out of 10 🙂
    I feel these books are the most frustrating ones. You see the potential but the execution just doesn’t wow.

    • azteclady 22/09/2022 at 9:06 AM #

      Yes, exactly; probably more so because the good points (frank conversations between the leads, for example) are so rare in genre romance, where conflict is often fabricated just to provide a third act bleak moment.

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