This was in my review request pile (I’m really trying to address the runaway freight train effect ignoring it for 6 months has had) and this was also nominated for the SPFBO book club book of the month for September. Sounds like two good reasons to pick it up and give it a try.
Oh, look, another western? This is my third western in as many months after not reading a single one for years. Funny how that happens.
Millie opens the story and is one of the main characters. She’s an albino elf and at the start is robbing a train. She’s actually the sheriff of a town called Scorched Bluff, but thing is, she’s running out of ammunition and without bullets she will struggle to keep her town safe. She knows there’s some ammunition coming on train passing near her town, so she decides to rob it. She doesn’t do it alone, though. She’s got the help of a ragtag posse made up of entirely women, there are orcs, elves, humans, and some other fantasy race called arroyans which are kind of demon looking, kind of like the Drenai from WoW? Of the group, Millie is the leader and far more cold blooded than the rest, particularly the human named Ryan who seems to be fairly soft-hearted. The group being so different from one another creates an interesting dynamic between them and makes for good relationships.
Well, the train robbery to get that ammunition didn’t go as planned — surprise surprise. There are dragons and other people who are going after the ammunition and she ends up killing a brother from a family of outlaws. On top of that she inadvertently pisses them off even more trying to do them a kindness by burning the body instead of leaving it for the animals. Jebediah’s family believe that burning a body prevents the soul from recycling and starting a new life, which sets off a subplot of revenge from the POV of Jebediah, the eldest sibling in this family. I actually liked Jebediah more so than Millie which I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to do? I guess I like the fact that he’s up front about who he is, even if it’s not great. He also has a deep attachment to his family and wants to do right by them. So, almost from the start there’s a deep tension between two of the main POVs which really does compel the reader to keep going, at least I felt that way.
Then we get another POV, his name is Gilbert and he’s a banker. Now this POV I didn’t like at all from beginning to end. I’m not into romances and the one he got into felt very rushed and weird and I just didn’t click with it. However, that’s not unusual for me and romance, and someone else in the SPFBO bookclub loved and shipped his romance hard. So, it’s definitely a personal preference thing.
Millie was an interesting character, she’s definitely Wild. She loves the west for the lack of boundaries and the scarcity of people. The more people and houses come into the West the more Millie gets pissed off. I don’t know why I never fully warmed up to her, I did like her, but I didn’t love her like some people did in the reading group. However, I do like the fact that she has a very troubled and in depth past that she’s trying to move on from and keep her family safe. You don’t see many mothers in fantasy that also have agency and go on adventures, so props there. I think a lot of the reasons why she never clicked with me would be fairly spoilery to talk about, even vaguely — best put, given her past I had issues with her present self.
The world building was neat as far as what was presented but I did have a few hang ups. I almost always nitpick about the island effect when it comes to Westerns. I really don’t know why the world at large is rarely mentioned in these. The setting is almost always focused on one small town and I have no idea how similar the world is to our own since the world itself almost never gets addressed. The other issue I had was elves taking the place of natives. I can’t recall a single reference to an actual native, and the elves wear moccasins and have tomahawks. Can’t say I’m a huge fan of replacing indigenous peoples with fantasy races, but I can understand not wanting to try and write about a culture you’re not from or wary of an overstep and portraying something inaccurately. I think this is a big reason why slavery, the civil war, and the slaughter of the natives never makes into westerns I read. They are undoubtably tricky topics but it feels like an elephant in the room that we’re all collectively ignoring about the West. This is definitely not unique to this author and would apply to all the fantasy westerns I’ve read so far. As far as the fantasy elements in this, we’ve got a bunch of different races, and we’ve also got dragons which is really neat, there’s a bit o’ magic from Millie’s people, but there’s not a ton of fireballs, spells, runes, and that sort of heavy handed magic.
The pacing was fairly slow at the start and built up as things moved along, I would call it a steady progression towards the end as things build on themselves. I also like to make a distinction between slow and dragging, dragging for me is when I’m struggling to get through a book, while I can still be enjoying a slower read. At 375 pages there wasn’t any meandering in the plot or things I felt were irrelevant, there was just framework to put up first before the plot could move forward. The writing was great. I really felt the prose was a highlight here. This felt very polished, very clean, very professional. I really loved both the dialogue and the narrative.. The dialogue was smooth and natural without overdoing it on the Western dialect, but it was there just enough so it felt atmospheric.
Overall, this was a really enjoyable book and I’d recommend it to people looking for in depth relationships, mother figures in fantasy, and dragons in the wild west.
- Plot: 11/15
- Characters: 13/15
- World Building: 10/15
- Writing: 12/15
- Pacing: 12/15
- Originality: 12/15
- Enjoyment: 7/10
Final Score: 77/100