Vengeance Road, by Erin Bowman, sold itself to me by promising something like Charles Portis's True Grit, which was a delightful book. I got Vengeance Road from Netgalley, and it's definitely working on the same template--a teenaged girl on her own in the West, trying to avenge her father's murder. It's got the language down, and I love that Kate's a practical girl, doing what's needful toward her goals.
I would say that this book is a bit more emotionally complicated than True Grit is, but it's also a bit less stylish. Maddie's voice permeated that book, and a lot of its appeal was her vast competence, even in areas she knew nothing about (where she knew to hire the right men and manage them properly). Maddie was distant and odd, and that's a large part of her charm.
Kate, on the other hand, is much more recognizably human. She's practical, but not always completely rational. This works in favor of the story, actually, because it's about the cycle of revenge, and how damaging it is, and the messes in Kate's life are a big part of that. I guess I was expecting the story to be a bit more cleanly adventurous, rather that emotionally and ethically messy.
I make it sound preachy, but actually, this is what I love in a story--when the things that are taken as given as "good" and "bad" are thrown into question. The tension between the real world's ethic of turning the other cheek and the great storytelling history of revenge being justice makes this a complicated and authentic story; to get her father's killers, Kate has to become a killer herself, and there's no way to do that without hurting people along the way. This is something I wish more stories addressed, and this one really does stare that in the eye, which I admire a great deal.
But I'll admit, I feel a lot more satisfaction when Kate's using her rifle or drinking whiskey. The more allies she gathers and complicated plans they put into motion, the more contemporary this story feels, which let me down a little bit, what with Kate's great voice, and her straightforward intent. There's a hint of romance that feels very contemporary, and very YA, too, I'd say, and I could almost do without it.
So this is unusual. I got sick this week, and never posted this entry, and then I finished the book. It makes for an incoherent review to jump in here at the end, but how I felt about this one changed as I was reading.
My expectations were definitely for something unusual and interesting. From the beginning, it was promising, and that's what I was feeling when I wrote my thoughts above; there was a promise of something really interesting and unusual--in terms of plot, yeah, but mostly in terms of character. Kate is singleminded and focused and suffering badly.
But as we get further in, the story conspires to bring everything back to the mean--it's a good story, a very good YA Western adventure, but I had hoped for something more, and I don't think it was. There's a nod at the end to how romance doesn't just magically fix everything, but even that nod kind of undermines its own point by having things, eventually, be wrapped up neat.
The book's truly about revenge, and about how revenge makes you hard and cold, and that's lonely and not healthy. But while the beginning had some promising treatment of some of the themes--what makes revenge seem so appealing, and how loneliness can make you cut yourself off more to protect yourself--it ended up feeling very much like a "love can heal you" kind of feeling. There were a couple of interesting twists that felt shoved in there at the end.
I'm not completely sure how I feel about the treatment of the Apache characters here. While on the one hand, they are treated quite respectfully as individuals, they do fall into a strong stereotype: impassive, spiritual, threatening the White Eyes who would harm Mother Earth. There's that magical, all-knowing sense of "otherness" that makes Liluye feel more like a prop than a character.
I liked the book, but I didn't love it. My hopes were too high. I guess I'm still looking for that magical Western that I want, somewhere between True Grit and Six Gun Snow White. Rapunzel's Revenge. There are some promising leads this fall: Walk on Earth a Stranger, Silver on the Road. But if you have other candidates, let me know!