Magical Realism is a very interesting genre. In the broadest, and most obvious terms, it deals with stories that incorporate magic into realistic settings. That could be viewed as an oversimplification though, since the same thing could be said for Urban Fantasy, which is a very different animal indeed. So, while magical realism could arguably be given a place at the speculative fiction table (and maybe even the little table near the kitchen that is reserved for Fantasy genres and subgenres), it typically isn’t. And for good reason. Often viewed as literary fiction, rather than the often less respected genre fiction (haters gonna hate) it could be compared to, it has a style and feeling all its own.
This may have something to due with its attributed origins as a primarily Latin American product. Jorge Luis Borges, Elena Garro, Juan Rulfo, Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende, among others, are seen as founders and pioneers of the genre. It has spread out from there, with authors of other places and cultures taking to the surreal world of magical realism, but no matter where they are from the genre always has certain elements in common to one extent or another.
Magical realism incorporates magic into the everyday, mundane world in a way that almost suggests it is commonplace; or, if not commonplace, than at least not terribly alarming to the protagonist. Its mystic elements, usually (or at least traditionally) rooted in folklore or mythology, are often subtle or underplayed and may go completely unremarked upon in the story. The subtle blending of the detailed, real-world setting with the fantastical, and the characters’ often almost casual acceptance of it (‘Huh, cats don’t usually talk, but it would be rude not to say hello‘ or ‘That is a little odd, the ghosts of my long dead ancestors don’t usually appear in my breakfast nook, I should ask them if I can get them anything‘) create a surreal, dream-like feeling in many of these works. In many situations, the calm, dream-like feeling is strengthened even further by the narrators indifference. They are frequently equally as unaffected by the “real” elements of their world as they are the fantastic, never seeking an explanation for their circumstances or the things they have witnessed. Meanwhile, the reader, confronted by a constant barrage of strange and impossible events in this realistic setting, experiences an ever-building sense of mystery, and occasionally foreboding, as the characters and the story calmly approach the point of climax.
If you enjoy waking from those particularly weird and vivid dreams that leave you with a distinct sense of confused wonder, or if wish you had dreams like that, then this is the genre for you.
In 2016, shelves and Kindles were stuffed to bursting with small-town romances. This year saw a slow shift from small-town to contemporary cowboy, at least as seen on the cover. (The stories inside remained fairly similar.) A larger switch was the surge in urban-based romances, signaling that readers and writers are looking to the big city for excitement. On the emotional side of things, angsty new adult started getting eclipsed by screwball comedy.
What will 2018 bring to romance readers? I can’t wait to find out!
Dating You / Hating You by Christina Lauren– The romantic geniuses behind the Beautiful and the Wild Seasons series deliver a standalone and standup-comic-funny contemporary tale of an office romance gone wrong. Really, really wrong. The accelerating romantic relationship of two talent agents in Hollywood hits the skids when a new boss tells them they have to compete for the same job. As Carter and Evie bounce between courtship and combat, this hilarious, sexy novel will make you gasp and giggle.
Getting Inside by Serena Bell – Female professional football coaches are rarer than political civility on Facebook, and this forbidden romance between a new linebacker coach and the Seattle Grizzlies’ top—but struggling—defensive linebacker had me glued to every word. Iona Thomas has to not only excel at her job but represent women in the professional league, and Ty Williams is the very last person she should be getting involved with. Both of them realize the stakes are too high for a relationship between them, but, hey, love can’t be denied. Tense, heart-scalding, and emotionally riveting, this had earned a spot on my best of the year list when it hit shelves in January.
The Undateable by Sarah Title – I think I snort-giggled all the way through Title’s contemporary romance set in the dating landscape of San Francisco. Wise, funny, and spot-on in its gleeful puncturing of male and female stereotypes, this tale of a librarian who unwittingly becomes the face of a “Disapproving librarian disapproves” meme will have you cheering Bertie on as she agrees to go on thirty dates in thirty days to prove to herself that she’s not undateable. Bertie is helped/hindered by Colin, a staff writer for locally based fashion magazine Glaze, who is sponsoring Bertie’s makeover as a publicity stunt. You might think that Bertie is being set up for a My Fair Ladyish ending, wherein conforming to society’s expectations of how a Woman Should Be/Look/Talk allows Bertie to Finally Find True Love. Pish. Though Colin has bro tendencies, he’s fairly enlightened and aware, making him Bertie’s perfect sparring partner as he briefs her and then debriefs her for her dates. It’ll be no surprise that eventually Bertie debriefs Colin as well, but it’s supremely satisfying.
A Lady’s Code of Misconduct by Meredith Duran – For years, heiress Jane Mason has been at the mercy of her horrible uncle, who has been siphoning off her funds even as he strives for power in Parliament. The last person Jane expects to help her escape her situation is Crispin Burke, a handsome but morally blackened confederate of her uncle’s who appears to care only about ruthlessly accumulating power. Burke gives Jane the initial helping hand, but it’s his fall that will allow her the ultimate opportunity to seize her destiny. To say more would ruin a deliciously intriguing plot. Just trust in Duran to dig into the dark corners of this complex relationship between two stubborn people who will discover unwelcome truths about how far they will go to get what they want, even as they learn to rely on each other. Love blooms here in rocky ground, but it becomes all the stronger.
A Merciful Death by Kendra Elliot – Elliot is a master of romantic suspense, and her latest sets a rural community of preppers (people preparing for disaster) in the sights of a killer. Because large caches of guns were stolen from the victims’ homes, FBI agent Mercy Kilpatrick is sent from the Seattle office to investigate further. But Mercy herself has a fraught history with Eagle’s Nest, and it takes police chief Truman Daly patience and persistence to unstopper the secrets Mercy has kept packed deep inside. Elliot expertly interweaves the current murders with the damage that past crimes have done to Mercy and Truman’s souls, and she lays out convincing tracks to a number of possible culprits in Eagle’s Nest. Fascinating details about prepper lifestyle give extra flavor to this mystery, adding to its memorability.
On Broken Wings by Chanel Cleeton – Not too many people are tackling grieving widows in romances these days (widowers, yes—wives die off before the story opens as often as mothers die off before Disney’s princess movies), and Cleeton handles it with a beautiful slow build. Dani Peterson has always been the love of Alex’s life, but when she was married to his commanding officer, she was way off limits. Now, a year after Dani’s husband’s death in a training accident, Alex is still keeping Dani at arm’s length. What Dani needs, though, is arms wrapped around her. A graceful exploration of the devastation of a spouse’s early death, the remnants of grief, and the ways we can heal…plus a bunch of sizzle.
Wanted and Wired by Vivien Jackson – Ever since starting Rebecca Zanetti’s Scorpius Syndrome series, I’ve been keeping my eyes open for a romance novel that gleefully sets its hero and heroine in the near future and gives them a storyline that couldn’t work in any other setting. Wanted and Wired does all that, with sniper Mari Vallejo and her sometime business partner, Heron Farad. Texas has split off from the Union, mechs are built to be indistinguishable from humans, and it’s up to individuals to determine how organic or how tech they want their bodies to be via augmentation. When Mari is set up to take the fall for a murder, she and Heron go on the run, forcing them to figure out where to draw the line in their partnership…or if a line should be drawn at all. If your pulse rate accelerates at the thought of sexy sci-fi, give this action-filled romance a try.
The Woman Who Couldn’t Scream by Christina Dodd – Dodd concludes her Virtue Falls series by finally giving police chief Kateri Kwinault her own story even as she weaves in a perplexing mystery centered on a mute millionaire’s widow who brings death with her to the small coastal town. You don’t need to start the Virtue Falls series with Virtue Falls—each book stands strong on its own—but it was a special joy to watch Kateri overcome the mountain of obstacles thrown at her through four books and finally find peace with her own choices at the end.
The Duchess Deal by Tessa Dare – Scarred in face, body, and heart by an explosion on the battlefield, the Duke of Ashbury has been a bit of gloomy gus since his return from war, but he still knows his duty: find a wife and make an heir. But with his ruined face, social events–and especially wooing–seem an insurmountable barrier. Luckily, down-on-her-luck seamstress Emma Gladstone comes straight to his house and pushes her way into his study to demand payment of the intricate (and awfully ugly) wedding gown she hand-sewed for his former fiancee. Ashbury’s marriage proposal seems a farce, but his persistence–and her imminent eviction–convince Emma to accept. So begins a delightful story of tiptoeing through emotional minefields toward true love that I think is among Dare’s best and at times made me laugh out loud. Perfect for readers of Megan Frampton, Julia Quinn, and Courtney Milan.
Dating-ish by Penny Reid – Those seeking a perfect friends-to-lovers story need look no further than Dating-ish. Marie and Matt’s first meeting could not be more inauspicious for the beginning of a friendship, but less a romance. Marie is expecting the good-looking guy she agreed to meet via an online dating site; instead she gets Matt, a nerdy scientist seeking data on what single women are looking for. When Marie decides to incorporate Matt’s study into a piece she’s writing about compassion and whether it can be outsourced, she (and the reader) starts to see past his awkward and literal-mindedness to the guy inside. Complex and smart, fueled by a fierce will-they-or-won’t-they? tension, Dating-ish might have a slow start for some but will delight all with its glorious finish.
Sergio Leone’s iconic Man with No Name Trilogy would’ve been better if Clint Eastwood’s horse was actually a steam-driven, robotic mount and he had a demonically-possessed, talking Peacemaker that had all the best lines.
If you answered “True,” or even “False, because those movies are great, but I would totally watch that crazy robot horse, talking gun one too,” then weird westerns might just be for you.
Weird West tales, you may have guessed by now, are a mashup of traditional Western settings, themes and tropes and various elements of speculative fiction. Many such stories incorporate steampunk elements. Remember The Wild, Wild West TV show… or the later movie starring Will Smith and Kevin Kline if the TV show was before your time? Perfect example of what we’re talking about. They may also feature magical realism and/or fantasy like incorporation of magic or fanciful creatures. Like other historical fiction, the stories can feature real-life people and events, although many weird westerns start their world-building from scratch.
Artificial intelligence, angels fallen to earth, Loki, murderbots, apocalyptic doom, and a leap in evolution are among the highlights of this year’s best science fiction and fantasy.
Every best-of list like this has its own criteria for a book’s inclusion, whether it be formally written out or lurking in the back of the editors’ minds. For my part, I wanted to put a spotlight on stories that were willing to stride down a less-beaten path while still thriving on the core values of heroism and derring-do that draw us to read science fiction or fantasy.
Every year it’s nearly impossible to winnow the list down to only 20. This year, thirteen of the 20 are either standalone books or start a new series, and the other seven books continue series that you’ll thank yourself for plunging into (but start with book one!). Three stories are self-labeled for teens or young adults, quite a few more straddle the “coming of age” space where so much adventure can happen, and even a handful of books revel in the hard-won wisdom that middle-age brings.
Below are 10 of the 20 best books of the year, focusing mostly on standalones or series starters.
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden – Arden’s debut novel builds like a thunderstorm, with far-off disquieting rumblings that escalate into a clash between sprites and humans, ancient religions and new, honor and ambition. Set in the 14th century in the bitter north, a two-week ride from the rough city of Moscow, this mesmerizing tale centers on Vasya Petronova, a girl who barely survives birth and grows up with a secret affinity for the sprites and demons that live in and around her village. “A wild thing new-caught and just barely groomed into submission” is how her father imagines her, and he’s not wrong. As her family tries to harness her into the typical domestic life of a young noblewoman, Vasya spends more and more time among the sprites and soon gets caught between two old and powerful gods struggling for domination over her part of the world. And while I think there are only a dozen or so novels in this world that have a perfect ending, I would put The Bear and the Nightingale high on that list. Book two, The Girl in the Tower, hit shelves on December 5.
All Systems Red: The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells – A weapon-heavy security bot on a contract with surveyors sent to investigate a new planet, Murderbot (as it refers to itself) takes pains to conceal from the humans it’s guarding that there’s something different about it: Murderbot has disabled the function that requires it to obey any orders given or downloaded. All Murderbot wants is time to itself so that it can watch the thousands of hours of entertainment vids it’s downloaded on the sly, but the sudden, ominous silence from the surveyors’ sister camp knocks those plans awry. Tense action locks in step with Murderbot’s march toward owning its personhood, imbuing the android with more character than other, far larger novels ever manage to do. A tight space adventure with a deep core of humanity, All Systems Red has become one of my favorite books this year to press into the hands of my fellow SF readers.
Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman – Neil Gaiman putting his own fingerprints on the Norse myths? Cue the hyperventilation of delighted readers. That reaction is genuinely earned in this inventive retelling, as Gaiman darts between a Tolkienesque tone in the epic origin stories and his own bright wit in the tales centering on the adventures of Thor, Loki, and Odin. Those new to Norse mythology might be astonished by how bizarre some details are, while fans more well-versed in Norse myths should still appreciate the humor and spark that Gaiman infuses into the stories he has selected to retell, adding to the existing rich literature. Many who read Norse Mythology will make this volume their joyful leaping-off point into a strange and mesmerizing world of gods, giants, undead goats, betrayals, a slanderous squirrel, elves, dwarves, and Valkyries. And don’t forget that ship made of the finger- and toenails of the dead.
The Hundredth Queen by Emily R. King – This tale of young orphan girls who are trained to be devout warriors—and then, disturbingly, are given to benefactors as servants, concubines, or wives—is ultimately one of strength and sisterhood. Sickly but spirited 18-year-old Kalinda is chosen to be the rajah’s 100th and final queen, an “honor” she desperately does not want but to decline means death. A bubbling civil war and the deadly intrigues of the court complicate Kalinda’s choices further, and King dials up the tension as the date of Kalinda’s wedding grows closer. Powerful and innocent at once, this is a good pick for those who embraced the lessons of justice and generosity in Wonder Woman.
The Power by Naomi Alderman – Margaret Atwood calls this book “Electrifying!” and it’s not just because in The Power young women have developed the ability to electrocute people, overturning the power hierarchy of the world. Girls and boys are sent to segregated schools, and female public officials are required to go through testing to make sure they don’t have the ability because, oh my gosh, the world just might as well be over if women gain physical leverage over men. It would have been easy to write a strident and simplistic anti-man book—one that would be welcomed especially now, during a tsunami of sexual harassment scandals—but instead Alderman weaves more nuanced ideas into a thoughtful yet action-packed story, giving readers of The Power lots to consider and lots to thrill to.
The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty – George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones meets Naomi Novik’s Uprooted in this marvelous debut fantasy about a young con artist from 18th century Cairo who learns that her mysterious parentage—and her ability to work small magics—might be connected to the nearly forgotten legends of the djinn, Suleiman the Magnificent, and the mysterious brass city of Daevabad. When Nahri accidentally summons Dara, a djinn warrior with a long and bloody past, she plunges both of them into the brewing animosity among the ancient djinn tribes united only by their disdain for their half-human offspring, who have few rights in the djinn stronghold of Daevabad. But not all djinn think the half-humans should be persecuted. Alizayd, the djinn king’s second son, works in the shadows to right wrongs even as surging tensions birth battles in the streets. Deep and gorgeous world building plus the political plot corkscrews caused me to happily ruminate on this book and its characters weeks after I finished it. I have a few quibbles—Nahri doesn’t have as much to do in the second half as in the first—but Chakraborty’s heck of a finale was both a surprise and felt completely right…and left me quivering with anticipation for the second book in the trilogy.
Artemis by Andy Weir – As in The Martian (the book, not the film), Artemis‘s strengths are Weir’s plotting and the gee-whiz science facts leveraged to make survival more unlikely than guaranteed. Twenty-something Jazz has made a niche for herself as a reliable smuggler in the one and only small city on the Moon. When one of her clients offers her a sabotage job that will let her pay back an old debt, Jax pushes aside her misgivings…and the hijinx begin. For me, the weakness of Artemis is Jazz herself, who, like Mark Watney (in the book!), can come off sometimes as an infantile jerk. Still, there’s quite a lot to enjoy about Artemis as a clever heist-gone-wrong-on-the-Moon story.
The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard – The second book in the Dominion of the Fallen series is just as atmospheric as the first and shoves you right into the middle of the twisty political action in which fallen angels and dragons compete for people and power. De Bodard knows how to craft a deliciously tense story in which flawed characters with competing agendas keep you flipping the pages to find out what happens next—and her broken, dark Paris is the perfect setting. Fantasy and urban fantasy fans should start with The House of Shattered Wings with a happy confidence that book two is excellent as well.
Void Star by Zachary Mason – In this near-future SF suspense novel, Irene’s neural implant and her ability to talk with machines makes her a much-coveted and very expensive tech troubleshooter, but her meeting with billionaire Cromwell sets off all sorts of subconscious alarm bells, as does the frightening glimpse of a wild AI she’s never encountered before. Void Star utilizes a deliberate, predatory pace more common to the most exquisite horror novels. A buildup of tiny tells, headlong plunges into the sharp-as-glass memories saved in Irene’s implant, and eerie snapshots of the strange and inexplicable hammer the tension into a near-unbearable drumbeat. But even as Irene crisscrosses the planet—sometimes on the run, sometimes on the chase—it’s the essential role of memories that gives this novel its heft, coaxing us to consider what we keep and what we leave behind in our own daily world-building.
When the English Fall by David Williams – In this spare but tense novel, only the Amish have the skills and the food stores to survive after an unexplained event destroys most modern technology, causing planes to fall out of the sky and electricity to fail. Told through the diary entries of Amish farmer Jacob, the bubbling-up of anger and violence in the outside world slowly begins to affect the self-sufficient Amish, forcing them to rethink their relationships with the non-Amish and how they will stay true to their beliefs while under new pressure. A fascinating exploration of the corrosive effect of anger and the strength that can be found in holding true to one’s beliefs, even if it leads to the harder path.
The winners of the 2017 World Fantasy Awards have been announced. The ceremony was held earlier this month in San Antonio, Texas at the World Fantasy Convention. The Lifetime Achievement Awards, presented annually to individuals who have demonstrated outstanding service to the fantasy field, went to Terry Brooks and Marina Warner.
Below is a list of the winners from selected categories. You can see all of the winners listed on Locus.
I first stumbled onto Nordic noir through Christopher Nolan’s 2002 film, “Insomnia,” which was a remake of the 1997 Norwegian thriller of the same name. That film’s complex plotting, desolate atmosphere, and morally compromised protagonist immediately hooked me. My next real foray into the subgenre would come a few years later when I picked up a copy of Stieg Larsson’s international bestseller, The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, to see what all the fuss was about and then immediately plowed my way through the remainder of the initial trilogy in the Millennium Series. Like millions of others I was hooked and Nordic noir has maintained a section on my bookshelf ever since.
For fans of crime fiction, Nordic noir represents the bleakest of the bleak, often centering on brutal crimes tinged with shocking violence. The tales invariably feature protagonists who, while possessing a generally ferocious sense of justice, are nonetheless tortured, brooding, and generally introspective. The settings, whether city streets or remote villages, are desolate and harsh. Combine these elements with densely plotted mysteries that often feature more than a few shocking turns and a spartan, direct prose style to accentuate the genre’s dark themes and it is not difficult to see why Nordic noir has been so influential and successful a piece of the crime genre.
The runaway success of The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo in many ways kicked the doors open for other booms in fiction from this Northerly part of the world. Though Larsson unfortunately passed away before the publication of his bestselling novels, for fans of his mercurial and damaged heroine, Lisbeth Salander, journalist and author David Lagencrantz has fortunately and gamely stepped up to continue the Millennium Series. The latest, The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye, is now available. That makes this the perfect time to take look at some of the best from the classics to more recent favorites.
In the fifth installment of the Millennium Series, brilliant hacker and troubled outsider Lisbeth Salander is as close as she’s ever been to unraveling the mysteries of her traumatic childhood. In order to finally do so, she turns to Mikael Blomkvist, editor of the investigative magazine Millennium. The duo soon find themselves in the midst of one of the most dangerous predicaments either has ever faced.
This acclaimed 1992 novel by Peter Hoeg was part of the vanguard of Nordic noir. It centers on Smilla Jaspersen, a scientist specializing in the study of snow, who is drawn into the investigation of the death of her six-year-old neighbor.
Jo Nesbo may be the current king of Nordic noir and his tortured investigator Harry Hole is one of the genre’s most intriguing protagonists. Hole is a celebrated, if unorthodox, detective and Norway’s leading investigative expert on serial killers. The very limits of his endurance and sanity are tested when he falls into a deadly game of cat and mouse when a missing woman leads him to a pattern of disturbing murders from the last decade. While The Snowman is the eighth Harry Hole novel, it also works as a standalone read and is arguably the point where Nesbo really hits his stride with Hole’s character.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was an instant classic upon publication and stands as one of the finest thrillers in recent memory. Centering on the forty-year-old investigation of a missing person’s case, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a dense and atmospheric read and introduced the world to one of the thriller/crime genre’s most captivating heroines in Lisbeth Salander.
This 2016 bestseller focuses on the murder investigation that follows after the body of an abused young boy is discovered in a city park. As Detective Jeanette Kihlberg dives into the case, she is drawn into a deep and complex web of violence and corruption. Originally published as a trilogy in Sweden, The Crow Girl is an intricate and emotionally complex read.
The Ice Beneath Her is the American debut of acclaimed Swedish author Camilla Grebe. Taking place in Stockholm, the novel follows a group of investigators unraveling the threads of a brutal murder that is eerily similar to an unsolved killing from a decade previous. It is an ingeniously plotted and twisting thriller.
This first installment of the Kurt Wallander series sees the gruff and somewhat misanthropic detective investigating the grisly bludgeoning death of an elderly farmer whose wife was also left to die. It is an excellent introduction to one of Nordic noir’s most iconic characters as well as the style of Henning Mankell, an author often thought of as the dean of Nordic noir.
This American debut for Norwegian author Samuel Bjork is a chilling thriller centering on the hunt for a vengeful killer targeting children in disturbing fashion. The novel follows Investigators Holger Munch and Mia Kruger – a brilliant and haunted detective with her own unnerving past – as they delve into a case with increasingly personal implications.
With The Keeper of Lost Causes, bestselling author Jussi Adler-Olsen introduces Carl Morck, one of Denmark’s best homicide detectives. Morck is in charge of a growing pile of cold cases, left to him following a career blunder. Though expectations are low for new developments, Morck is drawn into one particular case centering on a missing politician presumed dead but who may be, for the moment at least, anything but.
This one is a true classic that heralded the Nordic noir genre. Originally published in 1965, Roseanna is the first of the Martin Beck Police Mysteries and inspired an entire generation of writers. It follows beleaguered detective Martin Beck as he investigates the mysterious death of a young woman who appears to have been strangled and tossed overboard during a cruise. In a lot of ways, it laid the template for what has come to be known as Nordic noir.
I lived in California for a couple of years when I was a kid, while I was in junior high. In seventh grade, we took a film class, one of the predecessors of the “media literacy” courses that are common in public schools. For the first time in my life, I was taught that there was a “language” of film. One of the films we were shown is the now-classic western, “Bad Day at Black Rock,” which starred Spencer Tracy, Lee Marvin, and Walter Brennan. The story takes place in 1946, and is set in a tiny desert town through which the train runs once a day. One day, a stranger comes to town (Spencer Tracy) with a mysterious mission that he won’t disclose to curious town members. But he’s looking for someone – a Japanese-American rancher – who lives just outside town. Before the end of the day, the residents of the town will try to kill Tracy because of what he finds out while he is there.
In the film are many of the elements common to “westerns.” For a kid who knew next to nothing about what westerns were about – other than the common stories involving Native Americans and American cowboys – the film provided me with a template of how to read a western story.
The setting for westerns, is, of course, “the west.” One of the challenges that besets the characters is the climate and the landscape. I grew up in the shadow of mountain peaks that topped 10,000 feet or more (the Cascades of Western Washington) and was aware that you didn’t need to live on a mountain to be affected by it. Mountains challenge characters, whether because of the need to get across a mountain range, or because, on the dry side of mountains, you’ll find land that struggles to get enough rainfall to sustain the settlement activities of the folk who settle there. Whether it’s rain for irrigation or hydrating livestock, or flash floods, or sudden snowstorms that occur in higher elevations, climate and landscape make life hard – and that hardness shows up in how people treat one another.
In a land where people struggle for survival, relations among neighbors become paramount to the preservation of small communities that spring up. But the west is big enough that (even now) it’s possible to go out into the wilderness and be alone for long periods of time. The conflict between community and the individual features in these stories, therefore, and is often represented by the individual who is talked in to protecting the community by becoming its sheriff or marshal, even though what he really wants to do is leave town and live on his own. In most westerns, marshals have power thrust upon them. They are not naturally power hungry, unless they’re a bad guy.
In the western, there are good guys and bad guys. People who fall in the middle often become victims of the bad guys and are in need of saving by the good guys. A man who won’t protect his family is one of the lowest forms of life in a western. No good guy likes to kill, but if it’s to protect himself or his town, he will spring into action.
Women and children are the “domestic.” They’re what a man will protect, but they also complicate life for the average man, especially if he is a cowboy. Native Americans are the enemy, always looking for opportunities to destroy those who are invading their lands, but there are occasionally “good Indians,” who provide aid to the settlers.
Plots of westerns revolve around moral issues. Not the moral issues that occupy people in cities. Men and women are judged by a different moral standard out west, and the west often serves as a place for people who have made “mistakes” in civilization to make themselves anew. Questions of personal morality are sublimated to much larger questions. These ethical questions arise because of survival. What is a good person willing to do to survive and to protect those who are weaker than he is? These are life-and-death questions, not rhetorical ones. In fact, it’s the man who speaks too much who is less trustworthy than the man who is defined by his deeds.
I was curious about whether westerns were a thing of the past, or whether they offer anything to the reader in 2017. Can a book published in 2017 hold onto its view of the west in a time when we recognize how horrifically the Native American was treated? Is there space for women characters as something more than an object of protection? What about the environmental damage that we know was wrought by the slaughter of the American Buffalo, hunting practices that drove the animal to the brink of extinction?
I wondered if it was my own understanding of the western that was too reliant on older stereotypes that have changed. In addition to reading a brand-new western, I also turned to Louis L’Amour, the western writer who dominated the field for decades and has over 300 million books in print.
Robert Olmstead’s latest novel, a western called Savage Country, confronts some of the dilemmas of writing about this time period. The first thing that surprises you is this first description of the environment that protagonist Michael Coughlin is riding into:
Some distance from town he was met with the smell of raw sewage and creosote, the stink of lye and kerosene oil, the carrion of dead and slaughtered animals unfit for human consumption … The year was 1873 and all about was the evidence of boom and bust, shattered dreams, foolish ambition, depredation, shame, greed, and cruelty.
Into this western town, where the worst of human faults has brought a community to its knees, our protagonist rides. Coughlin has fought in the Civil War, and he will be the reluctant hero who is called to serve the greater community. In this case, he thinks that he is going there to take care of his brother’s widow, Elizabeth, who has discovered that her recently deceased husband has left her with a mountain of debt and a posse of debt collectors. But Elizabeth is not helpless. She has come up with a plan to save her ranch so that she can stay and continue to work the land. The plan is to hunt buffalo, the animal whose meat, skins, and bones are all in demand in the east.
Rather than shy away from the issues that might undo the western, Olmstead confronts them head-on. The buffalo hunt will start out as a means by which the ranch will be saved, but as the participants find out, participating in this hunt will bring all of the ethical issues that underlie so many of the classic westerns.
If Olmstead surprised me with his approach to the genre, Louis L’Amour turned my conception of the predictability of the genre on its head. In Bendigo Shafter, we are given all the familiar elements. A small group of settlers establishes a town on the edge of the frontier and then confronts all of the usual complications, including the challenges posed by the landscape. There are also hostile Indians, and problems with food and water supplies. At the center of it is Bendigo, the young man who accompanies his married brother to the frontier.
Bendigo longs to leave the town, to strike out on his own. His obligations to others, however, keep him tied to the town. But Bendigo is a reader, and as L’Amour explains, the settlers who brought books with them selected their very best with which to travel due to the weight restrictions. One of the settlers who brought books is the widow, and she favors classic philosophers. As a consequence, Bendigo reads John Locke and other Enlightenment writers and the Stoic philosophers, who in turn shape his thinking about his life and the west.
Consider this passage in which Bendigo speaks of observation and living in the moment:
The desert and the wild country taught me not only to look, but to see … and there is a difference. Many look but do not see, for the land about them that seems so changeless is changing even as they watch, a change unbelievably slow yet nevertheless there.
And not surprisingly, the more Bendigo comes to respect his environment and to love the changes he observes, the more he comes to respect the Native Americans who he sees as having shared with him this same approach to the land. Soon, Bendigo becomes friends with an old member of the Umatilla tribe and his grandson, who become his companions as he traverses the country.
L’Amour’s women are also surprising. Ruth Macken, the widow with the books, becomes Bendigo’s teacher about the broader world. She is also a crack shot who helps to defend the town, and L’Amour works her into Wyoming political history – the first state to give women the right to vote – by having her run for public office.
The Iron Marshal, also by L’Amour, doesn’t even begin in the west. It begins at the docks in New York harbor, where an orphaned Irish boy lands without any family. He is taken into one of the Five Point gangs, and the first part of the novel details how Tom Shanaghy becomes “muscle” for one of the gang bosses. Events out of Shanaghy’s control put him on a train, and when a train detective throws him off, it’s to find that he is now in Kansas. Despite all of Shanaghy’s reasons for not wanting to stay, he is talked into becoming the town’s marshal, and he must face those who want to destroy the town. Surely, these are the more common elements of a western, but again, L’Amour turns Shanaghy into a reader, who uses his rational thinking skills in aid of a town where guns rule social relations.
But Shanaghy is attracted to the environment of Kansas because its wide open spaces remind him of Ireland. His attachment to the land is what first convinces him to take a chance with staying in the west.
What became obvious to me in my reading of both Olmstead and L’Amour is that I had mistaken “genre” for something that didn’t allow for writers to play with its tropes and familiar attributes. The western still has things to say to readers who want to immerse themselves in familiar territory. For those who are willing to “see” as well as “look,” the works of Olmstead and L’Amour offer marvelous sights.