I honestly don’t remember what it was about the description for Taylor Brown’s upcoming Fallen Land that caught my attention—there’s a pretty good chance it was the Civil War setting and the mention of Sherman’s march to the sea. As far as historic fiction set during that time period goes, you usually get books where the characters are deeply engrossed in the actions of war—the battles, the army maneuvers, the women and children left behind to cope with occupation, etc. Fallen Land follows characters who manage to remain largely on the outskirts of those kinds of things—they’re obviously still impacted, but the war itself is a backdrop rather than the driving force of the plot.
Callum is a teen who has taken up with the Colonel and his band of Confederate-leaning guerilla fighters who raid where and when they can. When the band stumbles across the house where they find seventeen-year-old Ava alone, she becomes the target of some of Callum’s companions’ violent desires. Callum intervenes to protect her and is nearly killed for his trouble. The first opportunity he gets, he heads back to look for her, stealing the Colonel’s horse to do so and bringing him and his men after him. During an altercation with them at Ava’s house, the Colonel is killed and Callum and Ava decide to head south together since neither of them have anything left where they are. It doesn’t take long for them to learn that the Colonel’s men—along with his slave-hunter brother—aren’t going to let the matter drop and are still on their trail.
The trio at the heart of the book—Callum, Ava, and the stolen horse, Reiver—is what makes the book compelling. Their journey doesn’t have much structure to it from the beginning—no set path to take and only a vague idea of what they’re aiming for and hope to find at the end. Once they become clearly pursued, the tension mounts and a stronger purpose takes shape. But it’s the ways they band together on the road and slowly get to know one another, the lengths they go to in order to protect and assist each other, that make the book enjoyable.
The pacing of the book can be a bit rough, especially right off the bat. It was unclear who was who and what was happening as it starts immediately with the discovery of Ava and Callum’s intervention on her behalf. It starts to clear up as Callum goes back to find her. Events involving the Colonel’s brother and the band as they pursue Callum and Ava demonstrate just what it is they face if they should be caught but—especially later and surrounding the novel’s climax—some of those events feel a bit forced… contrived. I think there are other means that could have led to some of the same ends and flowed more naturally. I would have also liked to see the passage of time more clearly delineated—it added to my confusion and the awkwardness of the pacing in many places.
What Fallen Land does with such heartbreaking accuracy is portray the devastating wake left by Sherman and his army as they marched across the south. Scrounging for what they can along their way south, Callum and Ava see just how little is left, just how much was destroyed, and how little care was taken for the civilians left behind. The issue of destruction for destruction’s sake arises on both sides—Sherman’s army that Callum and Ava follow and among the band who are pursuing them; it is a question that arises in Callum himself as necessity forces him to take drastic measures on more than one occasion.
Fallen Land will be available for purchase January 12, 2016.