Montana, 1880. A desolate homestead in the Eastern plains. Tom, a young widower, discovers a wounded outlaw hiding on his farm. The corrupt sheriff and his deputies are after Abe, the fugitive, and they don't care much for Tom either.
It's a great set-up for the illicit relationship that sparks between Tom and Abe. The stakes are high: the defense of private property, the survival of good men, and a love that dare not speak its name.
Desolate Homestead is no revisionist Western, attached as it is to the force-justifying founding myths of settler colonialism. The subversion here is in characters daring to imagine for themselves an alternative to traditional marital bliss (even if it involves the performance of heteronormative marital bliss).
A lot of the plot of this erotic period romance is predictable, story beats and sex scenes hitting with the predictability of crutching and shearing seasons. But I suppose there can be comfort in that, if you're so inclined. Depending on your perspective, overused devices can also be beloved tropes (I'm a new reader to romance as a genre).
Harder to dismiss is Tom's plodding and repetitive internal monologue, in which he describes in minute detail what he could do, what he should do, what he might do, what he will do, and then what he is actually doing to keep his lover safe. Writers are often invited to show, not tell, and here we are told (again and again) about every aspects of the logistics of hiding a wounded man from the law.
Like the novel's unfortunate title, the tone here is passively descriptive, leaving little room for pulse-quickening action or breathless surprise. This includes the sex scenes, which don't always contribute to the character's search for meaning (past the initial intimacy of a sensual bath) and whose repetitive nature (every orgasm results in "shooting thick white ropes of semen") doesn't bode well in the unlikely case of a long term relationship.
Thankfully, the two central characters are compelling enough that you can't help but care for their predicament. If these queer men are our ancestors, then their fight is our fight. We root for their future not just as characters threatened by ignorance and hatred, but as the brave men whose shoulders we now stand on. The novel is never more alive than when Tom imagines living his truth in plain sight.
Donnie Vakarian keeps Tom and Abe's backstories ambiguous enough that our imagination remains engaged (it was a relief to this reader when, despite having fallen head over heels, Tom acknowledges that after only a fortnight, he might not know Abe as well as he thinks). There's a good ending that picks up the pace and allows for a couple of curveballs, while setting up the sequels nicely (this is the first in a Montana series).
Farm life in 1880 Montana rings true, and Vakarian infuses his rural tale with authentic language and detail. He writes about dogs, horses and sheep with credible authority, and knows how to describe not just farm work but, say, the sequential smells of a stillborn lamb consumed by fire. Against this deftly painted backdrop of isolated plains, the loneliness of queer men with slim odds of finding one another reverberates in the mind long after the final page.