In the wake of a devastating attack, Heath Crowley has lost everything—his family, his partner, even his will to live. He will do anything to escape the suffocating pain and finds himself on a one-way flight to Tanzania where he proceeds through the Serengeti to a tribe of Maasai. The nomadic tribe takes him in, albeit reluctantly. The men ignore him, the women exclude him, and the children are frightened of him.
Damu is a member of the tribe; he is charged with taking responsibility for Heath—now named Alé. Able to converse in somewhat broken English, Alé feels immediate gratitude towards Damu. The man feeds him from his own stores, shows him the ropes, offers him simple acceptance and companionship. As Damu instructs Alé in the ways of the Maasai, a kinship begins to grow between the two. For Alé, this slow-growing connection is shocking in it’s ability to dull the agonizing ache left in his heart after losing his partner. Indeed, during the pitch-black nights in the tiny mud hut Damu calls home, the two begin a shy exploration of the kinds of physical comfort two humans can share.
Yet all is not picture-perfect. Damu has always been, quite literally, on the fringes of society. He is shunned by dint of being born because his mother did not survive, whereas he did. Starting anything remotely close to a romance with a Westerner would possibly be bad; but having any physical relationship or even finding love with another man is a crime punishable by death. When Damu’s jealous older brother discovers the two in a compromising position, hard choice will have to be made.
I am separating this review into two distinct parts: 1) How this story is a deliciously angsty M/M romance and 2) How this book certainly satisfied the Around the World Challenge, yet left me deeply disappointed.
To be perfectly clear, I think this is a prime example of a melodramatic M/M romance. There’s nothing quite like watching characters face seemingly insurmountable odds and, well, surmounting them. Damu has always been on the fringes of his Maasai society, ostracized by the stigma associated with the shame of his mother dying giving birth to him. For all that he is shunned, Damu uncomplainingly contributes to the tribe and keeps to his assigned place. He is respectful and dutiful even when his fellow Maasai would not (or could not) afford him the same courtesy; in short, he embodied the perfect Good Boy. When Heath arrived a broken man, the village elders assigned him to Damu’s care. The two shared Damu’s tiny mud-and-dung hut as well as Damu’s domestic chores like gathering water. Heath immediately picked up on and privately raged against the unfairness of it—how such a paragon of a man could be treated like dirt. Yet for all that Damu’s people neglected him, Heath saw and appreciated Damu for the good man that he was. It’s something of a foregone conclusion that the two would develop a friendship…that turned into something more.
The shy sexual awakening of Damu is sweet and tender. Walker does a good job showing and demonstrating the shifts in the relationship between Damu and Heath. This is certainly helped by the sheer goodness and goodwill Damu shows Heath. It’s like Damu’s teaching Heath how to survive in Tanzania helps Heath re-learn how to live his life. When they deepen their connection physically, it’s Damu who helps Heath come to terms with and lay to rest past devastation. In turn, Heath helps Damu understand the urges he feels and together, they explore physical connections that lead to full consummation of their relationship. Ever vigilant that one slip could cost them their lives, Damu and Heath have a period of blissful togetherness. Of course, the longer they get away with getting their way, the more the reader dreads the tender, exciting scenes between the two lovers because you know the other shoe is gonna fall. When it does, it was nothing less than exciting.
In a nutshell, this is a great romance—especially if you like damaged characters redeeming themselves or virginal heroes “fixing” said damaged characters. Quite apart from the romance aspect, I chose this book for the Around the World Challenge for our Reading Challenge Month. In that regard, this book obviously fits the bill. I’d say 85% of the action takes place in Tanzania. Walker tries to set the scene and captures at least the basics on the Maasai culture. Their compounds are enclosed with fences of thorns; they judge their wealth at least in part in terms of how much livestock they have; theirs is an utterly patriarchal society with rigidly defined gender roles to support the lives of the tribe’s people. As far as what the eye can behold where the Maasai and Tanzania are concerned, I thought Walker did a passable job.
Although the physical setting of the book felt satisfactory, I was—bluntly—extremely let down by how Walker seems to ignore the cultural aspects of life with the Maasai. There’s more to the Maasai than the clothing they wear (shuka), the food they eat (mostly ugali, a state starch dish made of corn), the jobs they do (the men herd, the women….er, make beads?). There were inklings into their culture, but each falls rather flat in my estimation. For example, there’s scene at a feast where one of the main antagonists begins a courting ritual that shocks his tribesmen given the recipient is a refugee who has no status. The shortcoming here is that there were no details given about what the courting ritual was, nor did any of this courting stuff get reiterated in any form with our MCs. Another example was how Walker took pains to set up a scene where the Maasai were sharing some of their oral traditions (fables) but the fable wasn’t shared with the reader. I think of the Igbo people in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and despite the vast differences in culture and period, the Igbo tale of the turtle and the birds was relatable to me because of its parallel to a Japanese pop song by one of my favorite artists. Maybe these people live in mud huts without running water or electricity, maybe theirs is a culture that lives and dies by its patriarchal rules, yet there are sure to be some aspects that an outsider can understand…if only the author would take pains to share them.
One other major criticism I have a lot of the subtext I get from Heath. For one thing, there seems to be a “Chosen One” vibe to him. Heath has these deja vu-like visions of the future, but unlike regular deja vu, he is often able to remember them and act upon them—which results in him being a walking deus ex machina, able to save the kids from a wildebeest stampede or other such god-like behavior. What niggles about this is that here we have the white guy with this quantifiable special ability. Ugh.
Then, there’s the whole White Privilege/First World vibe. As broken, as devastated as Heath was, how much of an asshole do you have to be to pack a backpack, hop on a plane and throw yourself at the mercy of perfect strangers in a foreign country? Then throw in the fact that he’s gone to a nomadic tribe in Africa where they have no running water, no electricity, and live and die by the lands they inhabit…having some dude rock up expecting to just assimilate to their lifestyle is ludicrous. Heath doesn’t speak the language and he doesn’t know how to be a productive member of their society (I guess it’s lucky there’s ostracized Damu who speaks pretty good English there to hold his hand). Ugh.
On a final note about Heath—as good a fit for Damu as he is, when it’s time for them to escape the country, I was pretty disgusted by how Heath handled the whole process once they left the tribe. Heath buys clothes for himself, but not Damu (at first, anyway) because Heath thinks Damu being in his traditional garb will make a stronger case for getting Damu a “special circumstances” visa out of Tanzania. Despite taking an airplane from the closest airport to the Maasai village, it’s not until they reach Dar es Salaam (the biggest city in Tanzania and where they intend to board a plane to leave) that it crosses Heath’s mind Damu will need a passport/etc. How could Heath forget this after boarding a plane to get to Dar es Salaam in the first place?
Overall, I liked the romance. I liked the basic tropes our two main characters embodied and thought Walker did a perfectly acceptable job showing us basic life with the Maasai. That said, I was hugely disappointed with the story’s lack of “soft” cultural inclusions and the subtext I got from Heath when considered outside the context of his romance with Damu.
This review is part of our September Reading Challenge Month for Around the World Challenge Week! Leave a relevant comment below and you will be entered to win a fabulous prize from Riptide Publishing. One lucky winner will receive a selection of print Advanced Review Copies of Riptide books before they are even released (non-US winners will get ebook copies upon release instead). Commenters will also be entered to win our amazing grand prize sponsored by Dreamspinner Press (a loaded Kindle fire filled with DSP books!). You can get more information on our Challenge Month here, and more details on Around the World Challenge Week here. And be sure to check out our prize post for more about the awesome prizes!