Weird Western tales

The Weird West as a fantasy subgenre is one that I’ve really been enjoying lately, and has cultivated a vibrant readership over the past few years. I’d say my first introduction to it was R.S. Belcher’s Golgotha books, but I have read a lot of other books in the same vein since then. This post collects some of those titles with a brief overview of the salient positives and negatives for each, spoiler-free.

I grew up for a good chunk of my childhood out west, in Arizona to be precise. I also grew up reading the Sackett books by Louis L’Amour. So reading these weird western titles is super nostalgic for me, but also constantly amazing. Somehow, it seems like this genre is the one providing some of the most innovative takes on sexuality, gender roles, and race – which honestly shouldn’t surprise me, given how rich the history of the territories was in the US both pre- and post-Civil War. So without further ado, in no particular order, I give you some of my favorites.

Silver on the Road, by Laura Anne Gilman

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NPR described this book as “pure American myth” and I can think of no better description, honestly. This is my favorite of all these novels, starring the Left Hand of the Devil, Isobel, in a dreamy coming of age that sucks you down into a world that’s larger than life. Though Isobel is young and at times naive, this is not a young adult book – the themes are too large and too dark. Magic lives in the Devil’s West, and it sinks its claws in whether you like it or not. This is the true American frontier, the archetype of a time in our history that formed so much of our cultural identity. If you read no other book on this list, read this one.

The Six-Gun Tarot, by R.S. Belcher

Perhaps the best way for you to get hooked on this book is to read this handy excerpt from Tor.com. The first book in the Golgotha Series, this book draws on Mormon, Chinese, Native American, and esoteric Christian mythologies in a world tinged with steampunk. Maude Stapleton is my favorite character, and she has her own spinoff book later in the series that just came out this year which I haven’t had a chance to read yet. I’m very excited about it.

Dreadnought, by Cherie Priest

Dreadnought is a lovely little tale written by Cherie Priest, one of the big names in steampunk. This is in fact a steampunk book, one hundred percent. While I prefer her book Maplecroft, this book still is high on my list of her works. Maplecroft is set in New England, so it unfortunately doesn’t fit the theme here. Dreadnought, on the other hand, tells the story of a Civil War nurse traveling across the country, so it’s not solidly set in the West as it were. The frontier feeling of adventure remains, however, and it’s aided by trains and chemically induced zombification, so if you’re into those things I recommend this book highly.

Wake of Vultures, by Lila Bowen

This book is a lovely, introspective affair that spoke deeply to the little girl in me who wanted to be a boy. Basically, if you ever read the Song of the Lioness books and felt immeasurable kinship with Alanna, this book is for you. Unlike those books, however, Wake of Vultures also tackles race and sexuality, and takes the next step on the gender identity conversation that the Song of the Lioness either couldn’t or wouldn’t take. All of that is wrapped up in a wonderful odyssey to battle a terrifying monster or two.

Vermilion, by Molly Tanzer

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Speaking of gender identity and race, don’t miss this lovely installation. Featuring Chinese heritage, talking bears, and a badass genderqueer female character, not to mention vampires, this book is a galloping romp. It sets itself up for a sequel as well, which I hope it follows up on.

Jackalope Wives and The Tomato Thief, by T. Kingfisher

This is an example of saving the best for last. Also I’ve cheated a bit by including both of these titles – there are technically two novelettes here, one of which won the Hugo this year! It’s worth it to read both in order, since they are so short. You can get these two stories along with several other lovely tales in the collection Jackalope Wives and Other Stories. Ursula Vernon, aka T. Kingfisher, is one of my all-time favorite authors at this point and a  source of inspiration. And the main character of these two tales is a lovely old woman. I love reading about old women doing badass things.

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The last Book of the Raksura

It is a bittersweet season, because into this season has come the last of the Books of the Raksura.*

I discovered these books several years ago, and they remain one of my favorites of all time. Shapeshifting? Check. Sweet aerial lizard-people battles? Check. Awesome emotional tension? Check. Gender-bending? Hells yes. Basically it’s everything I’d expect from a Martha Wells story and more.

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I first read a story by Martha Wells when I was a preteen/teen (not sure exactly) exploring the local library.** Our little library actually had a pretty eclectic collection of books, including such obscure and slightly disturbing texts as Richard Adam’s Maia as well as classics like Mercedes Lackey’s Heralds of Valdemar series. In the corner, near the end of the adult fantasy section (I had already consumed the vast majority of the YA and children’s books that would catch my fancy) was a narrow, hardcover book. It was called The Wheel of the Infinite, and I recognized the mandala on the cover from my father’s own nonfiction treatises on the subject. I brought it home.

And then I consumed it, ravenously. Even at the time, I recognized that I was reading something groundbreaking, something I could love forever.

The library had a few more books from Martha Wells’ long career, and I flew through them quickly. Then, being a girl and unaware of my ability to order more books that they may or may not have had, I moved on to other sections. As the years passed, I mostly forgot about Wells and her work, buried under other books – Kushiel’s Legacy series was a great favorite, as were the Dresden Files and A Song of Ice and Fire. I scribbled more and more stories, hoping to emulate those I admired, but nothing that ever amounted to anything until 2009, when the death of my grandmother gave me determination. In 2010, I took that determination with me to the World Fantasy Convention in Columbus, Ohio.

At a panel, on what I no longer remember, I saw a thin, dark-haired woman with a name that sounded vaguely familiar. Wells talked about her books, as authors do on panels, and something lit up inside my head. I remembered the books I had loved years ago, and walked up to thank her for writing them. I think she was vaguely nonplussed that it had been so long since I had read any of them and I was still trying to talk to her, but I’m not sure I would have known what to do in that situation either. It can’t be easy to have an aspiring writer walk up and pounce on you post-panel.

In any case, I promptly went home and downloaded all of her books. And that is how I found the Tales of the Raksura, and Moon and Stone and Jade. Malachite, one of my favorites, came much later. I have been reading these books for seven years, and re-reading them when I need a pick-me-up and the world seems heavy. They feel like a hug and a warm blanket. They feel like a happily ever after, every time. Now, I have finished the last novel, at least foreseeably, that will be set in this world. Moon is home with Jade, and hopefully they will have many little baby Moons to fill up their mountain tree. I couldn’t be happier for them.

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And honestly, I can’t wait to see what she does next.

This year, I am going back to World Fantasy Convention, this time in San Antonio. I’m going because I have projects to pitch. I’m going because it’s in the city where my brother lives and I’ll get to visit him. But mostly I’m going because Martha Wells is Toastmaster, and I hope that I will get to see her and say thank you with a little more specificity this time.

 

*That is, unless you follow Martha Wells’ Patreon, where tiny snippets may be birthed in perpetuity. I hold out for a novella about Moon’s little babies and the Sky Copper clutch as they hit adolescence.

**I’m happy to say that my book Mother of Creation now sits on the shelves alongside the many happy tomes that I read as a child.