Coming of the Storm is the first book in a trilogy by Michael and Kathleen Gear about the first, bloody contacts between Native Americans in the southeast and Hernando de Soto's Kristiano conquistadors exploring the devastating results of this epic clash of cultures. Black Shell is an outcast Chicaza noble who earns his living as a trader and he wants to see, first-hand, the strange, white, bearded Kristiano invaders he has heard so much about, the strange beasts they ride and the huge boat they came on, as the story opens in about 1539, soon after de Soto's initial forays into La Florida. As he travels south from the civilized lands of the Mos'kogee nations through a Florida populated by the Apalachee into Uzita lands, he meets Pearl Hand, an extraordinary woman for any time and place, but one whose independence and courage set her apart among the peoples of her own time. But it is her beauty, poise and boldness that capture his immediate attention.
Fate, and the guardians of the cultures that created these two people, are what brought them together, but that chance meeting on the trail begins a deep and abiding love that will outlast Black Shell. The story is told in first person, in Black Shell's words, for the most part, but it is bracketed by narration of the ancient crone Pearl Hand, as she remembers their journeys together.
When Pearl Hand learns what Black Shell intends, she warns him not to proceed. Even getting near the Kristianos is to court danger; this, she knows from personal experience. But Black Shell is determined and ultimately pays for his intransigence by being taken captive and made a slave. De Soto's men felt it was their God-given right to take the Indios they encountered into bondage and felt no need to provide adequate food, clothing and shelter for them. Black Shell witnesses, first hand, what Pearl Hand warned him about when, chained in a group of Indio slaves, he watches as his captor beheads one who can no longer function due to the weakness from starvation and illness and turns his dogs on the corpse. When Black Shell, now weakened almost to death himself, believes this fate will be his own, Pearl Hand comes to the rescue, risking her own life to save him. Thus begins their journey together that will take them through this book and the two that follow and trace the path of de Soto and his men through the pre-colonial southeast.
The two bind their futures in marriage and become the backbone of a small band of guerrilla warriors bent on forearming the peoples who will meet de Soto and the Kristianos with the knowledge they will need to resist them. As Black Shell recovers from the illness contracted during his captivity, his souls float free, encountering the supernatural creatures from the creation stories he learned as a child and learns it is his duty to take on this quest. The power of the red and white people, like the red and white powers of his people - the red of chaos and war and the white of order and peace - are balanced, in such a way that the gods cannot intervene to resolve this clash between cultures. Only men can resolve it. If his people are to prevail, Black Shell must make them understand.
But, like all cultures, the nations he encounters along the way are entrenched in their own internal struggles for local political gain. Their leaders don't see the importance of listening to the wild tales of some outsider or want to use the encounter with the conquistadors for their own immediate gain. Or, they simply do not believe they cannot prevail over this threat as they have over their neighbors. Why would they listen to this outsider?
At Napetuca, they are betrayed by a Timucuan who is a Christian and believes he will gain by siding with his captors. Everyone is slaughtered but Black Shell, Pearl Hand and the half-dozen warriors who join them on their quest. They are known as the Orphans. The same fate seems to follow them where ever they go. Finally, at Uzachile, with the Apalachee people, they begin to make some gains, picking off conquistadors and horses through guerrilla tactics and send de Soto and his men on in search of an easier source of slaves for their journey toward some mythical city of gold.
The story closes with Black Shell, Pearl Hand and the rest of the Orphans on the trail, in search of their next encounter, hoping to find some way to send the conquistadors back to their own country.
Best part of story, including ending:
There is much to love about this book, from the compelling, engrossing story-telling style to the unique perspective of de Soto's trek, which most of us know only vaguely, and from the victor's viewpoint. As with all historical fiction, we ultimately know how it ends, and we know the tale is a hard one, for the native people. But the Gears bring it to life in such a way that you're rooting for the Orphans. It's a gratifying read.
Best scene in story:
I thoroughly enjoyed the exploration of the creation mythology of the Chicaza people, as expressed through the fever-dreams of Black Shell as he recovers from captivity. He encounters mythic beings we've never even heard of and in such a way that you are thoroughly present, as he is, when he is taken into the depths and fights for his life with Horned Serpent, and finally makes love with Corn Woman, only to awake with a new and difficult life ahead of him.
Opinion about the main character:
Black Shell is a completely human hero. He has foibles, like any man, and, though he has the arrogance of a Chicaza noble, he learns humility, and Pearl Hand does a fine job of keeping him humble as well. The most compelling thing about the Gears' writing is that they bring these people to life. We recognize ourselves in them.