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Wild Penance by Sandi Ault
Cover Artist: Aleta Rafton
Review by Don Metzler
Berkley Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780425232323
Date: 02 February 2010 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

It was too quiet, no shrieking. The figure soared downward in silence, the arms stretched out like wings, creating a pale white crucifix form easy to make out even in the frozen gray light of predawn. This jumper did not streamline into a perfect spear for speed like most of them did Ė rather, this was a swan dive that stretched for seconds before disappearing into the blackness of the chasm.

There I was: out on the rim, too far away to do anything to change what was happening. I saw a body on a cross. Falling into the Rio Grande gorge. And it did not come back up.

More by Sandi Ault:
Wild Indigo
Wild Sorrow
Wild Penance

Jamaica Wild is a resource protection agent for the Bureau of Land Management, working out of the Taos Field Office. Having arisen early this morning for a solitary jog along the rim above the Rio Grande gorge, she inadvertently becomes witness to a bizarre crime: a human body, strapped to a huge wooden cross, is thrown from the narrow bridge that spans the river canyon, into the 650 foot deep chasm. The image is nightmarish, and inexplicable.

Jamaica immediately calls in the incident to law enforcement. But due to the treacherous conditions on this stretch of the Rio Grande, recovery of the body will take at least a full day, perhaps longer, and making positive identification of the victim then becomes increasingly problematic. But there is one immediately obvious clue: the wooden cross to which the victim had been lashed, which points to a possible connection to an obscure and secretive religious cult known as Los Penitentes, who believe that spiritual salvation may be attained through emulating the sufferings of Christ, even to the extreme of crucifixion.

Among the various overlapping law enforcement agencies who respond to the crime scene, only a small handful of individuals are made aware that Jamaica actually witnessed the event, and Deputy Sheriff Jerry Padilla advises Jamaica that they should keep it that way. For the time being, the less people who realize there was an eyewitness, the better.

But it soon becomes evident that someone knows of Jamaicaís involvement, and of her interest in the Penitentes -- someone who is not kindly disposed toward her possible interference. First, the sketchbook in which she has for several months been recording images of nearby Penitente shrines, as well as maps to the sites, is stolen from her Jeep. The next day, a Lexus sedan follows Jamaica for several miles along the winding mountain roads between Santa Fe and Taos. Jamaica spins off the highway into a secluded hiding place, but is unable to read the license plate of the sedan as it speeds past her.

Then, during a charity fashion show in which Jamaica has reluctantly agreed to participate, a heavy light bar falls from the ceiling rafters and seriously injures a young woman. As it turns out, the injured young woman had at the last minute taken Jamaicaís place in the scheduled rotation on stage.

It seems that someone is out to get Jamaica Wild.... to get her off the case, or to get her dead. But who? And why?

In her Wild series of novels, author Sandi Aultís stories resonate with colorful background of the things that she knows best: the native and traditional cultures of the Southwestern U.S., as well as the wilderness and wildlife of the region. And in Wild Penance, Ault provides fascinating insight into the world of the Penitentes, a group of ascetic Christian adherents who continue to practice their centuries-old rituals in closely guarded locations among the rugged mountains of northern New Mexico. To this day, little is known by the outside world regarding the rites and practices of the Penitentes, and Aultís perspective seems to be that this is as it should be. Sometimes there are people who just want to be left alone, and I agree with Aultís implied message that there are times when we, as outsiders, should just learn to leave people alone, to not interfere and trespass where we have not been invited.

Wild Penance is a good mystery, with twists and turns to keep the reader guessing until the end. More so, this book will have great appeal to all students of the culture of the Southwestern U.S.

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