It’s been a while since I’ve read a Weird Western. I don’t read many of them and honestly that was kind of by design. I used to take care of the elderly and elderly men tend to gravitate towards westerns. Many of them grew up on shows centering around the Wild West and there’s a nostalgic love for them. So they’re prone to just sit there all day and watch — so then I do, too. As a result, I’ve grown very familiar with those old shows and I was tapped out on them.
That said, by in large, I don’t see or hear about western fantasies very often. We don’t have much of it in our current pop culture either, as movie, tv, or streaming shows, either. We just don’t see many of them right now. In that way, this book stands almost alone in this year’s SPFBO contest. You want something different? This is different.
LOL. First things first, if you don’t like cursing just skip this book entirely. There’s a lot of it in here and it gets super creative. I liked the creative cursing in this more than Lynch’s stuff, to be honest. It can also get pretty bloody. The sheriff in this story is named Thorpe and his nickname is the Judge. He got that name by being a ruthless killer who takes justice into his own hands. He executes people he feel deserve it without waiting for the court system to figure it out. That makes him sort of a greyer character, but he does have a bunch of redeeming qualities that come out throughout the story. He’s sort of a brooder, he lost his family to a mysterious fire but their bodies were never found. They were presumably burned up and they haunt him in his dreams. So if you don’t like cursing or blood, just take a pass on this.
At the start of a story Thorpe is handling some asswit called Merle, he’s known for smuggling youngsters into near-slavery like conditions, so overall not a nice person. Well, he’s tried to smuggle the wrong people this time. Ms. Sweetwater and her kids are the governor’s family, his daughter and grandkids. It’s not a wise idea to try and make off with them. Well, they were on a run for a reason, the governor is all sorts of fucked up. The meat of the plotline takes a bit to get going and there are a few ‘side quests’ he does first which kind of sets up the story, including rescuing a girl named Greta who becomes kind of like his side kick. So, eventually he finds himself battling political nonsense, a flesh eating Dust storm with weird creatures that live inside it, as well as trying to grapple with his own past and troubles.
I liked the world building, the small world that Thorpe lives inside is very well realized and super atmospheric. I could picture the towns, the saloon, the people etc. There’s a really neat system of tunnels the citizens use that run all along the underside of the city that are used to survive the Dust storms. I thought the Dust was just creepy and unpredictable enough in nature leading me to want to know more. The horror elements were trickled in slowly, with the eldritch horrors surfacing later on. I thought it was really well done both in integration to the world and overall tone and theme of the story. That said, I didn’t really know what was going on outside of this small area of the American West. I wouldn’t say that information is at all necessary to the story, but it does create an island effect where there’s just this one area of the world I know about and nothing else. There’s not a ton of ‘magic’ in this, it’s more of a low fantasy story, but there are Weird things that happen all along the way, cults, monsters, etc.
There were a few things I was able to predict, I could kind of guess where things were leading up to, but there were some things that surprised me, too. So, I’d say the tension was middling for me, enough to keep me turning pages as it were (I text-to-speech’ed this book). The pacing was pretty good with some action sequence happening frequently intermixed with these character interludes that gave a nice even pacing throughout.
As far as the writing I found the dialogue particularly well done. It was seasoned with a Western dialect but it wasn’t drenched and overburdened. So, I almost always bitch about infodumping, and although this book has a bunch of them, they made sense in the way it was done. It was almost like interludes as Thorpe would tell stories from his past to entertain kids/open up to a new love interest. So we’d get these character background info dumps in dialogue, but I didn’t knock points for it since it flowed with the story and made sense. There were some moments during action scenes were two foes were talking a little too much to each other, lol. Ya know how sometimes in a movie two enemies will get into an argument mid-fight? I generally don’t like that/find it realistic. It did kinda fit the tone here, and is likely a purposeful choice. There were a handful of brief sex scenes that I actually read because they were brief and not weird. Authors lose me after the second paragraph most of the time, lol. I also felt they served a purpose which I rarely ever do, so that was nice.
The tone of this starts out bitter and kind of morphs into hopeful? The colorful and creative cursing continues throughout and is used as a bit of comic relief in what could be a very dark and brutal book. I would not describe this as a comedy, but it has a black humor that’s consistent throughout and lifts the book a bit, I’m not sure if I would have enjoyed it without some bit of relief in there.
I liked his relationship both with Anna and with Greta. I felt like his relationship with Greta wasn’t weird which it can be sometimes when you pair an older dude with a younger female side kick. I thought Anna was great, she had her own agency and thing going on. Their relationship was a slow burn and not without it’s troubles and issues. My favorite supporting character is Josie. My god do I love frenemies. This exasperated captain or whatever he was, is just my favorite foil to Thorpe. I also love how Thorpe and his relationship grows throughout the book, really well done.
Overall, goodness I’m so happy I liked this. Full disclosure, Aaron is a friend of mine and so I went to this first after I finished the few audios I had in my request list. That said, I don’t give praise or high ratings to friends just because. My first review of his first book will speak to that, lol. (It wasn’t terrible, just a 3 star review). So, I am super stoked to throw down a solid 4 star score here and give it a genuine recommendation to anyone wanting something pretty different.
- Plot: 11/15
- Characters: 12/15
- World Building: 12/15
- Writing: 12/15
- Pacing: 13/15
- Originality: 14/15
- Enjoyment: 8/10
Final Score: 82/100