Year of the Horse: Humorous mix of historical western and fantasy

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsJustin Allen Year of the HorseYear of the Horse by Justin Allen

Justin Allen’s Year of the Horse is one of the more original fantasy amalgamations I’ve come across — a mix of fantasy, historical western, and coming-of-age boys’ adventure tale peppered with some Devil and Daniel Webster / Washington Irving / Mark Twain / Zane Grey, and topped off by a heaping of multi-culturalism. Does it all work? Not in all places, but certainly often enough to keep the reader enjoyably engaged.

The story is told from the perspective of Yen-Tzu-lu (mostly known as Lu), a young Chinese boy living in his Grandfather K’Ung’s store in Chinatown St. Frances with his mother and alchemist grandfather. Into the store walks the famous and mysterious gunslinger Jack Straw, who shockingly seems to know Lu’s grandfather. Next thing he knows, Lu is the “explosives expert” of a team led by Jack and including Chino (a pistol-toting Californian/Mexican), Henry (a free Black), Jack MacLemore (an ex-Confederate), and his daughter Sadie (a buckskin-wearing young woman). They’re all heading to the Wild West through the dangerous Hell Mouth and deadly Lake of Fire, past mountains and deserts, predators and Indians, polygamists and ghost-riders, all the way to Silver City, where MacLemore hopes to reclaim a pile of hidden gold and gain some vengeance on the mysterious Yankee bandito who stole his house and mine and killed his wife and young son.

The plot is episodic in nature as the group, and especially Lu, move from area to area and deal with the various problems: some caused by humans (racism, old wounds still sore from the recent Civil War, tension between whites and Indians, lust and greed), some caused by nature (the perils of journeying over mountains and through deserts), and some supernatural (flaming ghost-riders only some people can see, a strange shape-shifter, and maybe even Old Scratch himself). The tension varies from episode to episode, as does the richness of detail. A segment in a fort, for instance, has little of the rich texture of the scenes in the Hell Mouth, but for the most part the plot holds the reader’s attention firmly. The movement through the varied terrain is nicely handled and done in realistic fashion. There are concerns over food and weather, and characters have to actually relieve themselves and sometimes resort to desperate measures to stay alive. The climax at the end, unfortunately, may actually be the least compelling part of the plot, though I don’t want to spoil the ending so I won’t explain just why. Suffice to say it was a bit abstract and unsatisfying for several reasons. But the “big scene” is only a small part so it doesn’t detract much — mostly as a matter of placement.

Lu is a strong character, an enjoyable filter through which to view his compatriots and those he meets, such as Chief Joseph. He develops throughout the book, learning various skills (most of them nicely detailed) but also coming to a growing maturity and sense of self and others. The other characters are solid enough to varying degrees. Jack is the most aloof and thus most abstract, while Chino and Henry have perhaps the best-drawn personalities, despite having relatively few lines. The multi-cultural aspect may be a bit wince-inducing at the start (let’s gather a Chinese, a white, a southerner, a girl, a Mexican/Californian…) and historically implausible as a traveling group, but the reader quickly forgets about it and just enjoys them as characters, even when their backgrounds or ethnicities play a direct role in events.

The supernatural/fantasy aspect is, I’d have to say, the weakest feature of the book. It often felt awkward and very thin when it was highlighted, which luckily didn’t happen very often. I’m not sure much would have been lost at all were it to be removed wholly from the book, save perhaps for the villain – though as pallid and anti-climactic as he was, perhaps not even then.

On a final note, Allen doesn’t shy away from the less refined nature of the time period. There are racial slurs (though toned down), people and animals die or are wounded, and there are references to possible rape, tobacco smoking, and so on. All of this adds to the realistic feel of the story, but parents may wish to take note, especially with regard to younger readers.

Though it lacks the richness or emotional heft of other recent YA books (Suzanne Collins, Kristen Cashore), Year of the Horse is a mostly enjoyable YA read that probably won’t have much cross-over adult appeal, an original and often humorous mix of historical western and fantasy with more success on the historical side than the fantasy side, with a strong central character. Recommended for YA readers with an interest in the time period and geographical setting, or for younger readers looking for a break from the usual medieval fantasy setting.

Year of the Horse — (2009) Ages 9-12. Publisher: Finally!—the myth and legend that is America has arrived. The American is literary fantasy at its very best—a novel that delves into our myths, legends, hopes, and fears; a coming-of-age fable set in our most fondly remembered (if mostly fictional) past; a story constructed to speak to both the young and anyone who has ever been young; and an adventure more than capable of setting your hair on end. The American tells the story of Yen Tzu-lu, a child of immigrants unwillingly pressed into service beside a gang of roughnecks, bent on stealing a gold mine from a shadowy villain deep in the western wilderness. Along for the ride are Jack Straw, a famed gunslinger and mystic, Henry Jesus, a former Union soldier and freed slave turned buffalo hunter and marksman, Chino, a Mexican outlaw from California whose very country was yanked out from under him, John MacLemore, a Confederate ex-patriot gone west, and his daughter, a true wild child of the western frontier. They must cross the continent: through desert, plains, canyon and forest; survive run-ins with Union soldiers, Indians both friendly and vicious, wild animals, deadly storms and suspicious settlers. If they make it, they’ll be rich. If they don’t, they’ll almost surely be dead. With Tzu-lu as our guide, weexperience a landscape of legend, stand toe to toe with those larger-than-life heroes and villains of our shared American mythos, and learn the inescapable facts that have both enriched and plagued our nation from its inception. Even as Tzu-lu struggles to come of age, learning what it means to be a man despite the most dangerous of circumstances, so too do America’s own triumphs and challenges come into greater focus. Equal parts Mark Twain and Larry McMurtry, this is a book of fabulous adventure and deep resonance. Allen gives readers, both young and not-so-young, a picture of how America sees itself. In so doing he offers up both a heroic vision of the past… and hope for the future.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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