Maybe I just shouldn't read westerns. Maybe the book universe is trying to tell me something with The Revenge and the Wild. So far I've attempted Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman (eh), Rae Carson's Walk on Earth a Stranger (excessively boring, too reliant on male characters to drive female characters' decisions, and problematic regarding Native people), and Grace and the Guiltless (absolutely not. No. I can't even.) and I just can't find anything to love. Bowman's book at least had a seriously kick-butt character ... until she went and fell IN LURVE with the brooding hero.
But I tried. I really did. I wanted this to be a western I could love. And looking at all of the other early reviews, I'm the only one who didn't love it.
Okay, I'm sure that's hyperbolic, but I'm not exactly known for being calm and rational about these things. I wonder, "What's wrong with me? Do I have some sort of bookish disease? AM I ALLERGIC TO WESTERNS?"
Then again, the pool of YA westerns is not exactly large. Maybe we just need more authors to take a stab at it and then I'll get lucky. Strike it rich. But so far, all of my claims have turned up only fools' gold.
Revenge and the Wild differs from other recent YA westerns in that it doesn't just dabble in fantasy, it dives in headfirst. In this version of the United States, California is a wild land filled with magical creatures. Vampires run brothels and leech the life-force out of addicted miners. Trolls wander the streets, and fairies confuse the heck out of newcomers with their glamourous beauty. In fact, that's how Westie, our main character, meets one of her many beaux: he was trying to hit on an elf-lady who was actually an elf-man. Now, from what I've read about elves, I honestly don't think they'd mind either way, but, whatever. We needed a fight in the beginning to show that Westie was Tough. With a capital T.
Other than being told she was tough, though, I didn't see lots of evidence of it. She could be crass, yes, but that's not kick-butt. That's just ... manners, which, if you're living in a version of the Wild West where your biggest worry isn't the vampires, but the cannibals ... then, okay, ditch 'em. Westie did nothing for me as a character. Her steampunk metal arm had more pizzazz than she did.
And come on. Is no one going to address the elephant in the room? No, not the Native American bits. I'm getting to that. I'm talking about her name.
We are reading a western with a main character named Westie. Is this a book teaching kids how to read? "Westie the cowboy rides her horse. Go, Westie, go!" It's almost too corny to be serious. Is it serious? Really. Westie.
Oh yeah, and then there's the Native content. Once again, Native people--in this case, the Wintu--are convenient plot devices to allow the main character to exist. Westie explains that it's Wintu "magic" that forms a protective dome over their city and keeps all the really bad creatures out. There's no mention of how the Wintu feel about all these people traipsing over their land and brawling and mining and bringing cannibals into things. Sheesh. But wait! There's more!
Westie "didn't know how magic worked at all, really. Nigel told her once that it belonged solely to the American continent. She knew Native Americans, though some evolutionary process, were the only ones able to use this magic because they came from this land." Yesserree, folks, we have ourselves a literal case of the infamous "magical Indian" trope right here. There's no consideration of how individual nations and tribes view where they came from. Native Americans are lumped together in a group, again, as usual, and given a woo-wah ability that no one can explain, but which conveniently keeps all the white people safe. Hooray.
Now, I'm sure you guys are saying, "HEY. Westie and Nigel aren't white!" and you would be correct in that! I was really glad to see main characters of color, but at the same time, saying "Well, Nigel is from Africa [note: Africa is a continent, not a country. It's like saying someone is from Europe. WHERE ARE THEY FROM?] but lived in England and now he's here" isn't enough. From what I read, Nigel is well-respected in town, not discriminated against because of his skin color. As for Westie, well, let's just say I'm confused. At one point she describes her skin as "copper," but when we later meet a family member (who, I presume, is related by blood and not adopted or married into the family), this person has green eyes and freckles and is not described as not-white. I know that people of color can have green or blue eyes and freckles and light hair. So it's completely possible that these two are related, but the pictures that the author painted of these people were of two separate families.
Edited to add: In the shower this morning, I realized that her description of "copper" was probably her metal arm. I'm not sure why it was made out of copper, since that's a relatively soft metal, but whatever. In any case, I thought I remembered reading hype about this book having a POC main character, so that was stuck in my head. If that's not the case, it's not clear. Carry on.
I didn't even get into the lovey bits but with something described as a love-rectangle by so many readers, I couldn't push myself forward to finish this.
Finally, there's the matter of the magic in this book. It is everything and the kitchen sink. I'm not kidding--I would not be surprised to encounter a magical washbasin in this world. We've got elves and trolls and vampires and cannibals and magical domes and trolls and every other magical creature you can think of. I know that sometimes it's fun to do ALL THE THINGS, but none of this felt cohesive. I couldn't believe in this world because it felt so slapdash. The actual prose was neither compelling nor unique.
Let me be clear: I have read far, far worse than this. Far worse. Apart from the issues with how it treats Native characters, I can't say there's much about this that's really not good. But that doesn't automatically make it readable, either.
One gallon out of a ten-gallon hat.