“Although Not Dead” was a wonderful, spirit-raising read. This is Kate Shugak at her best, following a quest, solving puzzles, exploring her family’s past, using her wits and her strength and her courage to take on the bad guys with only Mutt at her side.
This is the eighteenth book in this series. Some series start to feel written out at this stage: repeating ideas, keeping relationships so static that they start to feel like caricatures, becoming dull and predictable. None of this is true about the Kate Shugak series. The books keep getting better because Dana Stabenow’s stories are character-driven and she lets her characters, ALL of her characters, grow and change so that my understanding of Kate’s world becomes richer but, just like real life, never feels complete.
The plot of “Although Not Dead” is driven by the bequests of two dead men: Old Sam, who leaves all his property to Kate, along with a one-line instruction that sets her on a path to discover more about Old Sam’s past than she might want to know, and Jim Shugak’s father who leaves him an enigmatic gift that will change Jim’s understanding of his own childhood. Kate’s intense, sometimes combative, sometimes deferential, but always loving, relationship with Old Sam contrasts starkly with Jim’s emotionally barren childhood, the sterility of which is illustrated by the fact that Jim was at a sleep-over with friends before he discovered that parents hugged their children.
In previous books, including “The Singing Of The Dead” and “A Taint In The Blood” Dana Stabenow has made the history of Alaska as much a character in the novel as the dramatic landscape is but it has never worked so seamlessly as in “Although Not Dead”, perhaps because, this time, the history is seen directly through the eyes of Old Sam, one of my favourite characters in the series. We see The Aunties when they were young and had yet to earn the honorific. We learn how Sam came to own the Freya and why he spent so much time away from home. We come to understand his rugged independence and some of his loneliness. In some senses, “Although Not Dead” is like a wake for Old Sam. It gave me a sense of completion, off saying goodbye to him without forgetting him.
Kate and Jim are apart for most of the novel. This has two interesting consequences: it allows Kate to be reminded of her own strength and independence and it confirms to both of them that they are better together than apart.
There was a slapstick element to the book that I also enjoyed. Kate gets hit on the head so many times in this novel that she might as well be in a “Tom and Jerry” cartoon but it stays just this side of credible. I love the scene where she finally confronts her enemies and adds another chapter to the Kate Shugak legend by the way she drags them to justice.
This was such a good read that my only regret is that I have only two books left in the series. I’m rationing myself to one a month so that I can delay the inevitable withdrawal symptoms.