I recently finished Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation and really enjoyed it, and I had a feeling I’d end up loving it when I started reading it and the feel of it reminded me of one of my favourite YA novels, Moira Young’s Blood Red Road.
They’re both YA novels with the kind of heroines I adore and a distinctly American, Old West feel, despite one being an alternate history featuring zombies and the other a post-apocalyptic novel taking place sometime in our future. I love stories about angry, vulnerable girls who act and speak before they think but who are ultimately brave and kind.
This got me thinking about the kind of books I enjoy and gravitate towards. I primarily read books by women that are about women, I tend to gravitate towards books like that more than any other, but I would consider myself a fairly eclectic reader. I love historical and speculative fiction, combine the two and I’m golden, but I also enjoy non-fiction, poetry, contemporary, literary fiction… I will try pretty much anything once, and even if there’s a genre I don’t love there will be one book in that genre, somewhere, that’s the exception.
My enjoyment of Dread Nation recently, though, has me wondering if there’s a genre I haven’t been making the most of during my reading life so far: the Western.
Now when I say the Western, I have to admit I’m thinking of a very specific kind because I am not a fan of traditional Westerns at all. I can’t stand Cowboys vs. Indians stories – I understand a lot of these stories are very much a product of their time, but the racism against First Nations people is something I don’t enjoy watching or reading – and most traditional Westerns are very masculine, and they’re not the kind of stories I enjoy.
Give me a Western vibe, though, with preferably either a leading lady or a female author and there’s something about it that I love. Perhaps it’s putting women right at the centre of these traditionally masculine spaces, or the very real danger of living one day at a time. It’s a remarkably silly film in many ways (and it’s supposed to be), but A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014) at least does a good job of stating that the American West was not a place you wanted to live 200 years ago. When the very place a character’s trying to live in is what they have to battle against every day, it makes every other conflict they have all the more heightened.
A book isn’t always guaranteed to be for me even if it sounds like it has everything I might want. A few years ago I ended up DNFing Relic by Renee Collins, a YA Western Fantasy in which fossils of fantastical creatures are mined for their magical properties. That sounded right up my street, but unfortunately it was a story I just couldn’t get into – when I put it down I never felt inclined to pick it up again.
There are a few books, though (two of which I own!) that have the potential to give me the vibes I love so much in Blood Red Road and Dread Nation.
A genre I don’t read much of at all but would like to read more of is Horror, and Josh Malerman’s Unbury Carol (if you’re wondering where you recognise his name from, he’s also the author of Birdbox which was recently adapted for Netflix) has been described as a Horror Western version of Sleeping Beauty, and frankly I don’t need to know anything else to want to read it.
I’ve seen some pretty good reviews of this one and there’s no way I’m going to say no to the story of a woman who’s been buried alive, trying not to go insane and waiting for her outlaw ex-lover to rescue her while her horrid husband tries to take all of her money. What’s not to like about that concept?
Peculiarly quite similar to Dread Nation and released in the same year (perhaps the American Civil War + zombies is going to become a very niche new genre) is Emma Berquist’s Devils Unto Dust, which follows Daisy “Willie” Wilcox who’s forced to follow her good-for-nothing father across the Texan desert to reclaim a fortune he’s stolen from one of the most dangerous shake-hunters in town.
In this version of America, ‘shakes’ are people who’ve become infected by the horrifying disease that’s spread across the country over the past decade. When I first saw the synopsis for this one it immediately made me think of Blood Red Road, which was what sparked my initial interest, but when I looked into it again fairly recently I realised this one is also set around/just after the Civil War and I enjoyed Dread Nation so much I decided to finally pick up a copy. This one appears to be a standalone, too, so I’m looking forward to getting to it soon!
A girl on a mission across a barren landscape and a cowardly father figure also just happens to be the premise of Joe Abercrombie’s Red Country, set in the world of his First Law books. I haven’t read any Abercrombie but he’s well-known in the realms of Grimdark Fantasy, a sub-genre I haven’t read much from, and I love the sound of this Western Fantasy.
I don’t think you need to be familiar with Abercrombie’s other books in this world to read this book – which is for the best because I tried reading his The Blade Itself some years ago and couldn’t get into it – although I think there are some cameos you’ll appreciate much more if you are already familiar with his work. Shy South sounds like exactly the kind of heroine I like, so I would like to get to this one… at some point.
From straight-up fantasy and back to historical fiction with fantastical elements, we have Rae Carson’s Walk on Earth a Stranger which I’ve owned for a few years and still haven’t read because I’m The Worst™ – it is on my winter TBR, though!
I haven’t read any Rae Carson yet but I’ve heard great things about her Fire and Thorns trilogy – this series is the one that calls to me, though! Set in Gold Rush-era America and featuring a heroine who can sense gold, I’ve seen this book described as a historical road trip across America and considering how much I enjoyed The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, which is also essentially a road trip novel, I think I’d really enjoy this one. Besides, the covers of this series are beautiful.