(I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via Netgalley for an honest review.)
In the spirit of reading books close to when they come out, I picked up Anna North's Outlawed, about which I knew nearly nothing except alternate history and midwives, both of which are a hell-yeah for me. Turns out I also get a ragtag band of queer women and nonbinary folks living as outlaws in the Old West. Have you ever heard such a tempting description?
The alternate history premise is pretty great; just after the United States won their independence, a devastating flu killed more than half of the people. The fledgling U.S. didn't make it, but of course the survivors carried on, and by the time of our story the middle of North American is full of small city-states that are basically just Old West towns without the federal government behind them.
Because of the huge population loss, motherhood has taken a particularly revered, religious, magical overtone. A married woman who doesn't have a child before too long might be a witch, and might end up hanged. When Ada, who's spent her whole life learning to be a midwife from her mother, finds herself childless and getting the side-eye from her neighbors, she has to run.
Her journey over the first half of the book goes to all kinds of places where humanity, knowledge, and superstition live in various combinations. From a convent to a cattle town, to Hole in the Wall, where in real life the notorious Butch Cassidy led his famous gang. Ada's medical skills and thirst for the scientific knowledge that is so thin on the ground in her world is just the kind of detailed worldbuilding fun that I love to read.
The real meat of the book is around the Hole in the Wall Gang, notorious outlaws who are secretly women on the run. Led by the Kid, a visionary whose enormous personality is sometimes all that holds their band together against a world that's out to get them.
While the book is plotted like an adventure, what I love about it is what a careful examination it is of this world--in many ways like our own historical world and even our own current one--and also of what it means to be a person living in it. Ada's is at various points a happy wife, an accused witch, a novice nun, an aspiring scientist, a medic, and an outlaw, and she observes each of these experiences is a way that has me hooked.
Race is a rising issue in her world, as well, both because of her new friends, but also because of political movements that are spreading through the country. Ada's scientific clarity on the subject is refreshing; her un-outlawlike tendency to say what she's thinking is anxiety-making in a book like this!
I'm at the point where we are engaging in The Big Heist, and I'm so nervous about it that I'm having trouble reading. Pretty much everything that's been at stake at any point in the book is at stake now: Ada's awkwardness as an outlaw, the risk of living disguised as a man, her friend's race, the gang's entire future. But the biggest question mark is the Kid's vision--can a bank heist really create the world they want to live in?
I honestly don't know the answer. I'm not sure yet if this is the kind of book where we get a happy ending, where alternate history goes the way you want and big ideas and good people can win in the end, or if it's the kind of book where it all falls apart as we're faced with the inevitable fact that we can only shine our little light in the darkness.
Or is it a book where you can win the day and find reality waiting on the other side of your dreams? I have no idea! Hopefully I've just made myself brave enough to read on and find out.