Michael Blake's 1988 fiction debut, Dances With Wolves, was a sloppy, cartoonish book. By contrast, its sequel, The Holy Road, is practically an oil painting. Set 11 years after Wolves—to coincide with the 11 years since the 1990 movie adaptation, which won seven Oscars, including Best Adapted Screenplay for Blake—Road continues the story of Lieut. John Dunbar, a Civil War-era Union soldier who joined a Comanche tribe and became Dances With Wolves. Wolves focused almost exclusively on Dunbar, his Indian allies and Army pursuers relegated to little more than a backdrop for his Boy Scout adventures. Holy Road takes a noticeably more mature tack. As it opens, Dunbar's tribe is facing a growing influx of white men who slaughter Indians and the buffalo, which the Indians consider brothers as well as food. Dunbar, now a respected warrior with a wife and three children, is among those who'd rather fight than make peace, but his beliefs make up a minor part of the novel, which mostly focuses on individual Comanches who stand as obvious icons for specific ways of life. Ten Bears, the tribe's elder, is curious about the whites and willing to wait and see what happens next. The medicine man Kicking Bird wants to negotiate with the invaders, but Wind In His Hair, the leader of the warrior elite called the Hard Shields, wants to fight and win. Debates, skirmishes, diplomatic meetings, raids, campaigns, prophecies, and societal changes fill out the book, which draws heavily on historical sources to piece together a quick-moving patchwork of events that doesn't focus too closely on any particular character. The results are too brief and too pat, particularly in a facile subplot that has Dunbar chasing his repatriated wife and daughter into white-man territory. The white invaders are generally demonized: Most don't have personalities, and those who do range from distasteful to reprehensible. But The Holy Road is still a huge qualitative leap forward for Blake. Its many-faceted plot, solid historical underpinnings, and air of restrained gravity stand in sharp contrast to Dances With Wolves' mawkish eagerness. And its shatteringly downbeat ending (which, even with Blake already penning the screen version, seems to have as much chance of making it intact to a big-budget movie as the end of Thomas Harris' Hannibal did) makes it clear that this is more than a quick cash-in on a successful franchise. To some degree, The Holy Road reads like expiation for its prequel's shallow, exploitative qualities and lack of sophistication. If that was the intent, the result is surely penance enough.

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