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Donners of the Dead, by Karina Halle

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***A Standalone Horror Romance***

A note about this book: Donners of the Dead is set in 1851 – couples were often thrust into marriage together with short courtships, racism was widespread and not overly frowned upon, and women had little to no rights. What wouldn’t fly in today’s day and age was unfortunately the norm back then – it is worth keeping that in mind when reading this book.

Jake McGraw was unlike anyone I’d ever known. He was brash, rude, unapologetic and arrogant; chauvinistic, close-minded, and terribly stubborn. He was built like a tree, tall with a hard chest and wide shoulders and hands that looked like they could wrestle a bear. He was a cigar-chomping, scruffy-faced, beast of a man. I was pretty sure I hated him. And I know he hated me. But among the flesh-eating monsters in these snow-capped mountains, he was the only thing keeping me alive

The year is 1851 and pioneers in search of California gold are still afraid to travel on the same route as the tragic Donner party did years before. When the last wagon train to go into the Sierra Nevada mountains fails to arrive at their destination, Eve Smith, an 18-year old half-native girl with immense tracking skills is brought along with the search party, headed by an enigmatic former Texas Ranger, Jake McGraw.

What they find deep in the dangerous snow-covered terrain is a terrifying consequence of cannibalism, giving new meaning to the term “monster.” While the search party is slowly picked off, one by one, Eve must learn to trust Jake, who harbors more than a few secrets of his own, in order to survive and prevent the monstrosities from reaching civilization.

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I’m a sucker for Karina Halle’s books! Ever since I started reading the Experiment In Terror serie, I have been addicted to her stories, her characters and her writing style.

What I really like about her is that she isn’t afraid of mixing the genres. I hope for you that you’re not too hung up on the concept of genres because Karina Halle isn’t afraid to shake things up where genre boundaries are concerned. And that’s how you end up with a book like Donners of the Dead, a historical horror western romance where zombies are the bad guys. It’s the first book I read about sexy cowboys fighting flesh-eating creatures and I was not disappointed.

“Chills gripped my chest with an iron fist the moment Isaac turned his head and stared down at me. Half of his face was gone, his eyeball blasted into his face leaving a dark red and black hole of bone, brain and blood.” 

Donners of the Dead was beautifully written. I was sucked into the book the moment I started reading and did not put it down until it was finished.

I really liked that this story was inspired by real events that happened in 1851 (minus the zombies of course). I like when a story is grounded into reality to a certain extent. Here, Karina made a great job of setting the decor and ambiance of the time. As is mentioned in the blurb, women status was very different then and our main character Eve, has it even worse because she is mixed-race (her dad was Indian and her mother a white girl) which was something highly frowned upon at the time and didn’t help when it came to integration.

“There was a loud, solid thunk on the porch, followed by another. The house shook slightly. I kept my eyes trained on the outside but couldn’t see anything. But I could smell it. It was blood and sweat and hay and horse and something unfathomable. A severe chill threaded down my back.” 

The dark, creepy tone of the book is set from the start and from there, it only gets scarier. In the first few pages you’re already facing strange, blood-thirsty creatures, and from there, my mind was suspecting every little movement and noise described in the book to be a possible ambush. No need to say that my nerves where on edge. But then again, Karina knows how to creep you out and I wouldn’t be surprised if you kept the lights on when you read her books. She really has a talent when it comes to making you shiver with fear.

“You must draw strength from fear or fear will make you weak.”

“Men are the real monsters. They often are.”

Here Eve, because of her tracking skills, is sent on a party in the mountains with a bunch of strangers to help them find someone who has been missing for a year. Even though she does want to go, no one really asked her if she was okay with going and she probably won’t see the money she is due for her services. And on top of that, the men of the group, even though they need her, don’t show a lot of appreciation. 

“I tend to tune out when a woman’s speaking.” I leaned further into Sadie, as if that would help me escape his chauvinism. “That’s probably because a woman’s never said a good thing about you.” (…) “You’re damn right about that.” He cocked his head and looked me over. “Except where it counts, if you know where that is, and judging by what you’re wearing to bed, I reckon you don’t.”

I found Eve’s character very brave and likable. She is strong and knows how to stand her own even though she is still very young. Her life prior the expedition isn’t easy and nothing is given to her. Her father went missing a while back and her mother is the shell of the woman she once was, leaving Eve to fend for herself. Her uncle and aunt are supposed to take care of her but let’s just say that Mr. Smith isn’t exactly thrilled about that. I liked her and her voice a lot in the book. She was a very interesting character to read about.

And then, between the bad guys and the creepy monsters lurking in the dark, there’s Jake McGraw.

“My goodness he had large feet”

“If you asked someone to tell you what a “man” was, I was certain he’d be their description.”

To me, the cherry on top of the delicious cake that is this book is that even though we are surrounded by horror, there is still a whole lot of steamy romance happening.

Jake and Eve’s relationship was great to witness. I loved the nickname he gave her, even though it starts out of an act of douchery. He is far from a gentleman and openly shows to Eve that he doesn’t like or trust her because she is half-Indian. He’s been through a lot and that’s why he is so “rough” on the edges.

“He may have “saved” me, but it was still Indian-hating Jake McGraw, and we mixed about as well as oil and vinegar.”

Basically, if it wasn’t for this expedition, there was no change in hell for them to ever be together. She’s a small town girl, he has seen world (or at least most of the US). She’s half-native american, he is a broody cowboy. You get the picture. But as the story evolves and things get tough for them, they start to care for each other and find out that they need each other more than they realized in order to survive.

“We were a tribe of two but a tribe all the same. Two broken people looking for their place in the world and finding each other.”  

Their relationship grows steadily and naturally. What I really like about Karina’s characters, is that they are not perfect. They are flawed and out of the norm, just like us, and it makes you relate to them on some level. The make mistakes, they curse, they lie and they doubt but they are still very likable. And even though they might not be people you would normally like, she makes you like and care for them with all their flaws. That’s why I very easily have crushes on her characters and am always excited to see new book release from her.

“No matter his age though, he was a rude bastard”

“I couldn’t find the words. Jake McGraw just kissed me. Not Avery as I’d imagined, but Jake. A man. A Texan. A liar and a jackass.” 

This book was a great one that I really enjoyed reading even though it made me jump at every noise I can hear in my house. It was the right mix of fright and romance and I recommend it highly to anyone looking for a thrill!

“There are only monsters inside of angels and angels inside of monsters. Choose wisely.”

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