Justin Allen – Year of the Horse
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Fantasy
Started: 24 March 2010
Finished: 28 March 2010
Where did it come from? From the author for review.
Why do I have it? See above; but indirectly due to Lorin’s post in the Unsung YA event.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 13 February 2010.
Summary: Tzu-lu (Lu for short) is a teenaged son of Chinese immigrants, who lives with his mother and grandfather in a small town at the edge of the Western frontier. When Jack Straw, the fabled gunslinger, arrives in town, Lu is excited… but then Lu’s grandfather informs Lu that he’ll be traveling with Jack on a mission to retrieve some stolen gold hidden in a mining town in the wildest part of the wild west. They’re traveling with a motley company, and they’ll have to face Indians, ex-Confederate soldiers with a grudge, fearsome canyons, and lethal deserts before they can retrieve the gold… but to do so, they’re going to have to face the biggest danger of all.
Review: Year of the Horse is an interesting mish-mash of genres: part western, part fantasy, part historical fiction, and part coming-of-age story. The overall effect is like the characters are riding through a continuous string of tall tales and legends – very similar to the Fables universe’s vision of Americana, actually. The real-life historical inspiration for every adventure is clear, but it feels like Allen took the actual history, and turned the dial up to 11: everything is just a little bit more exciting, dangerous, and larger than real life. It’s an effective bit of worldbuilding; at times I forgot that the actual wild west probably wasn’t quite so fantastic as the world through which Lu and his friends moved.
This book also neatly avoided the common downfall of adventure stories; each incident worked both as an episodic adventure as well as part of the overall storyline. There are all the gun battles and horse chases and sun and dust that you could want from a Western, and the final confrontation with the gold-stealing Yankee is nail-bitingly tense. The book’s main flaw, I think, is that it tried to do a little too much. There were some characters that were underdeveloped, and some elements (like Lu’s father) that were brought up too often without ever really panning out. On the other hand, the elements which get most of the focus (Lu’s growing up, the adventures, and the mythology/worldbuilding) are all done really well. I don’t read a lot of westerns, but I do read my fair share of young adult fantasy adventure stories, and on that tally, Year of the Horse is among the best I’ve come across. 4 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: Fans of westerns, Americana, legends, and modern mythology will enjoy Year of the Horse, as will anyone else who’s looking for a fun and unusual adventure story.
Links: Justin Allen’s website
First Line: Tzu-lu sat at his desk, in the farthest corner of his grandfather’s store, staring at an unmarked sheet of paper.