Title: Dona Nobis Pacem
Author: Willa Okati
Publisher: Torquere Books
Genre: M/M historical (western) Romance
Length: 102 pages
Rating: 3.75 stars out of 5
A guest review by Jenre
Mute saloonkeeper Donnell knows all about prejudice; he’s had to battle it all of his life. He also knows how self-righteous and judgemental the people of the old west town of Nazareth can be, so he isn’t surprised when he sees them spurn requests for work from a man who walks into town looking to be all but on his death bed. Donnell takes the man in and nurses him back to health, falling in love along the way. But is Donnell destined to have his heart broken?
It was the title of this book, which jumped out from a long list of book titles, that made me first investigate what Dona Nobis Pacem was about. Then I liked the idea of both a historical ‘wild west’ setting and a hero with a disability. It turned out that this book had quite a lot going for it, but also had a few faults.
Donnell was born mute and rescued from death by prostitute, Bettina, who then brought him up. He’s worked hard all his life on his piano playing and gambling skills and now is the proud owner of a bar, won fair and square in a card game. He’s happy with his life as it stands, but annoyed at the local preacher, Michael, who stands outside his bar preaching hell and damnation to all his customers and who wants the land where the bar stands for his church. Into this situation comes Nathan who has been thrown out of a type of monastery, which trains men for the priesthood, after he was tricked into admitting he was gay. When he arrives in town he has been walking for several days in the heat and is close to death. Donnell takes him in and looks after Nathan, all the while falling in love with him.
There were several things I liked about this book. The descriptions of the setting and the way of life for Donnell was interesting and seemed well researched to my amateur eye. The attitude of the townspeople to Donnell, both as a disabled man and a bar owner was a mix of contempt and pity which again fit in with the way people used to think at the time. Most enjoyable though was the way that Donnell thought in his head. His words had a unique voice and western lilt to them which I found quite charming.
What’s happened to drive a man so young as him to this place? Donnell wondered, slowing the pace of the sprightly tune into something nearly dirge like. Mule headed boy! He can’t last much longer out there, especially once the sun gets properly high, him without a hat nor a sip of water to his name. And what then?
Donnell’s disbility is also handled well. He gets frustrated that he cannot communicate effectively, especially with Nathan, and also that his intelligence is underestimated by everyone. I liked that he sometimes played on the assumptions of the townspeople that because he can’t speak then he must be stupid and Donnell’s lively mind and internal humour went a long way to my liking him. The character of Nathan was a little more difficult to identify with which, I think, was mostly because he’s barely conscious for most of the book. I felt sorry that he had been so badly treated in the past but he seemed just a little too perfect at times perhaps because we see him so much through the eyes of Donnell. There aren’t many minor characters as can be expected in a novella, but I liked Bettina and her rough love for Donnell, and Levi, the bartender, whose gruff exterior hides a painful past.
The parts of the book which didn’t work as well for me was firstly that Donnell falls in love with Nathan almost from the start, despite knowing anything about him or even if he was gay. I think this was supposed to show that Donnell has a soft, trusting side to his nature which is at odds with his harsh surroundings, but I just felt that it was a little unbelievable. Linked with that is the fact that, once over his initial shock, Nathan seems to be ‘cured’ of all his feelings that homosexuality is a sin. He’d been beaten, treated badly and thrown out of the only home he had because he was gay and yet after a minor protest, the past is forgotten and all is well. I would have expected Nathan to have been a lot more traumatised than that so again this part rang a little false.
One final thing is that there were a few loose ends left flapping about at the end. One of these loose ends is the character of Michael who overshadows quite a lot of the book like a sinister, malignant crow. I was expecting some kind of showdown between Donnell and Michael which never happened. Nathan’s place in the bar and Levi mentioning that he may wish to move on, were another couple of loose ends which made me wonder whether there is a sequel planned. The plot would certainly make more sense if there was more to come.
Overall, I enjoyed this book in that the writing was good and it was well paced. I found it a quick, undemanding read and liked that the setting and main character were a bit different from the norm. I would recommend Dona Nobis Pacem to fans of Willa Okati and also those who like books in an historical western setting.