Author: Justin Allen
Genre: Young Adult, Western, Adventure, Fantasy
Publisher: The Overlook Press
Publication Date: October 2009
Hardcover: 352 pages
A thrill-ride adventure novel capturing the adventure, mystery, legend, and lore of America
Year of the Horse 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 fondly remembered (if often fictional) past‹an adventure more than capable of setting your hair on end.
Year of the Horse tells the story of Yen Tzu-lu, a child of Chinese immigrants unwillingly pressed into service by a gang of roughnecks bent on stealing a gold mine from a shadowy villain deep in the western wilderness. With Tzu-lu as our guide, we experience 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.
Resonating with echoes of Mark Twain, Larry McMurtry, and J. K. Rowling, this is a book of fabulous adventure and deep resonance. Allen gives readers a picture of how America sees itself, and in so doing he offers up both a heroic vision of the past and hope for the future.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
How did we get this book: Review Copies from the author
Why did we read this book: Actually, we were contacted by author out of the blue a few months back – after our review of The Left Hand of Darkness, Justin Allen thought we might be interested in his book…and he couldn’t be more right. After reading the synopsis for this book (diverse cast! Western setting – and y’all know how much we love Westerns! Fantasy-style quest/adventure!) and seeing it appear on “Most Underrated YA” lists, both of us were hooked.
Ana: I was tremendously excited about reading this book.The author’s pitch to introduce his novel to us was quite frankly, made of awesome. And, in theory Year of the Horse sounds great. A western with fantasy elements with an all-inclusive cast of characters sounded just like the book Thea and I would love. And it starts well enough with the right amount of mystery, a writing style that appealed to me all against the backdrop of Old West. But as the pages pile on, the story, the characters, never truly progress beyond the first impression. Although I enjoyed some aspects of it, I can’t say I truly enjoyed the novel and that is a shame because the potential is right there.
Thea: I agree with Ana. I’d like to start out by saying that, on paper, Year of the Horse has everything that I could ask for in a novel. A historically detailed western setting, a multiracial cast, a traveling supernatural-tinged adventure tale in pursuit of the devil…it’s all good stuff. Except that it doesn’t quite work. There’s a lot to like in Year of the Horse, but it never truly comes together and lives up to the potential. Though the setting is beautifully and lovingly drawn, its characters never gain life beyond their token labels, and the supernatural element is sketchy at best. I still enjoyed the novel, but can’t help feeling disappointed.
On the Plot:
Ana: Tzu-lu lives with his mother and grandfather who together run their shop. One day, a famous gunslinger named Jack Straw walks into the shop and has a mysterious conversation with Lu’s grandfather. The result is that Lu is to accompany Jack on a cross country expedition to the West. Their aim is to take repossession of a Gold fortune stolen from its rightful owner, a man called MacLemore, who is paying for the expedition. Together with Jack, MacLemore and his daughter, a former Slave called Henry, a Mexican called Chino, Lu travels to the other side of his world and on the way, comes across adventure, perils, Indian and cowboys, Mormons and even perhaps, the Devil himself.
As much as promise as the book holds, a promise of high adventure and of coming of age for Lu, the plot never really takes flight. The story is episodic at best, with many encounters with potentially interesting people coming and going without much consequence. Even though the setting is quite vivid and there is a certain flair to Allen’s old Western, details – especially of the Fantastic variety are often lacking and nothing is really, truly explored. As I read, I was continuously met with boredom and I will admit to grievous sin of skimming when it became clear I would not be missing a lot if I did.
I would describe it thus: a two-dimensional view of America circa 19th Century that at first glance provide an interesting even imaginative panorama. However it lacks the most important thing in the world to make it three dimensional and truly engaging story: depth. The characters are stereotypes (but more on that below), the story lacks action and pacing and it ends with a patronising, patriotic “message” that shows that the author might have been more interested in preaching than telling a good story. Which, as I said is a shame because the story had potential and so does the author: the prose is quite good actually.
Thea: Unfortunately, I have to agree with Ana. Year of the Horse has the elements of a good story – as we’ve both said above, it sounds good in theory. But in practice? It just doesn’t quite gel together. The adventure of this band of travelers across a changing American landscape is episodic in nature – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I actually kind of liked how each chapter felt like a new short story, meeting different characters and locales before moving on and leaving them behind. The scenery and history of the novel are textured and rich, and there’s no denying that Mr. Allen has the setting down pat. Everything from bridling horses to burning coffee to learning how to fire a gun and kill deer is covered in genuine detail.
But…all this also meant that the story overall felt like it had little direction or purpose. Yes, we know that this band of heroes is out to reclaim a fortune in gold, but that goal feels hollow. I found myself drifting off when reading, asking myself what’s the point? These episodic adventures do not really work to do anything, and while the setting is great, it reads like so much filler. The fantasy/supernatural element feels tacked on with vague details and skimpy literary allusions (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, for example). And, I have to agree with Ana – the ending makes an uncomfortable stab at patriotism (what it means to be an “American”) that doesn’t sit well with me, and likely will alienate other readers – especially non-American ones. Year of the Horse had some good ideas, ingredients that separately sound like they’d make a good dish, but tossed together are strangely bland and unsatisfying.
On the Characters:
Ana: This is really where the book commits its more serious offense. And again, it is all about theory and execution. In theory the idea of a multi-ethnic cast of character is awesome. I am all for that – it is both great and interesting to see Hispanic, Black, Chinese, White characters all together plus also, a Woman all sharing the pages in harmony. It is beautiful when it is not trite. Because the execution fails the idea entirely. By trying too much to have every single race and genre represented the author ended up doing what I am sure he was trying to avoid: because none of them have really any depth whatsoever they all became stereotypes. Here you have the Chinese Boy, there you have The Gunslinger, The Mexican Dude, The Former Slave, and The Spunky girl. All of the characters are non-entities most of all the main character, Lu. He is bland and blank, functioning merely as the eyes of the narrator from which to see this world.
Lu never really came alive to me probably he is the epitome of a re-active character (as opposed to an active one). He never asked questions: why is he told to leave with Jack? Why must HE go? Later on he is told he is to be the explosive expert and never thinks twice about it. It is pointed that he is so because of his father whose life seems to have been interesting by the amount of people all over the world who knows his name and yet THAT is never truly explored either. For a coming of age story, Lu doesn’t really change that much or learn a lot (expect if you count the lessons on cooking, shooting, riding, etc – this is the kind of “learning” he does).
Thea: As much as it pains me to say it, I again have to agree with Ana. The biggest problem with the book did not lie with its stilted plotting, but with its stock, cardboard characters. One of the things that excited me about Year of the Horse – the main thing, in fact – was its cast. I wanted to read a western novel from the perspective of a Chinese immigrant. But Tzu-Lu (or rather, Lu) is flat, uninspired, and besides the initial introduction to him and the occasional conversation in Chinese, might as well have been Irish or Native American or a martian. He’s the epitome of the “blank narrator” – without much in the way of personality, inner dialogue of any sort, and he neither questions nor grows over the course of the book. His status as a Chinese immigrant and his culture play a negligible role in the story (and when his ethnicity does show up as a point in the book, it’s awkward and forced). He never felt like a real, genuine, flesh and blood character.
The same can be said for the other characters in the book; they are all mere caricatures. Gunslinger, tomboy, evil Yankee, token Mexican, token Black character. These are stereotypes, two-dimensioned renderings that verge dangerously into uncomfortable territory (unintentional though it may be).
Final Thoughts, Observations and Rating:
Ana: I wish I could say I enjoyed the novel but the lack of strong, in-depth characters and the boring, episodic plot made this one a total miss for me. I also need to mention that the ending and its message just did not sit well with me at all. Not because I disagree with it, because I obviously don’t but because it sounded to me like I was reading something that had a “and the moral of the story is…” and I just do not appreciate being preached at.
Thea: Year of the Horse is wonderfully detailed in terms of physical and historical landscaping, but deeply marred by simplistic, stock characters and a jolted plot. I enjoyed parts of this novel, but not nearly so much as I wish I could have enjoyed it. It’s not a terrible book, but it’s not a good one either.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From the official excerpt:
“A Bill Comes Due”
The storm must have blown itself out sometime during the night, because when Lu woke up the next morning all was bright and beautiful once more.
At first he didn’t know where he was, or how he’d got there. It took a minute for him to recall the previous night’s lightning storm, and the flight down through the steepest, deepest and most vertigo-inducing canyon in all the Territories. They sure didn’t call it the Hell Mouth for nothing. Seeing the canyon from above, under the mid-afternoon sun, had been a revelation. Whoever knew rocks could be so gorgeous? But being inside it at night, when a storm hit, had been terrifying. In the rain and wind, Lu had quickly fallen behind his group. It was darn scary being out there all alone. So when he found what he’d thought was a short cut, he took it. Remembering back on that moment near choked him with guilt. They’d all said he was just a boy, not yet ready to shoulder a man’s responsibilities, and now he’d gone and proved them right.
Lu felt stiff and groggy as he pushed between his horse, Crash, and his mule, Lucky, and stumbled out of the little cave. The sun was just beginning to peak over the walls of the canyon but already it was hot. He splashed through the puddles that had collected on the narrow piece of ledge surrounding the cave entrance, right to the edge of the precipice, and was shocked to see the river not even a hundred feet below. He was even more surprised when he glanced to his left and saw the very same red and burnt-orange natural stone bridge he’d marveled at the morning before, and with a path leading up to it as surely as if it were the finger of god pointing out, with no uncertainty what-so-ever, exactly where he needed to go.
As he chewed a bit of pemmican, Lu concocted a plan. He’d cross that bridge — if such a thing were even possible — and then head north along the opposite wall of the canyon until he found his missing friends. He laughed out loud as he imagined the looks on their faces. They’d be hungry, he guessed. Unless one of them had thought to squirrel something away in a saddlebag, Lu had all the remaining food. Henry would bless the day he’d first met Lu. Chino would swear up a storm of happiness. And Sadie would want to shower him with kisses. Even Jack Straw would forgive him for getting lost.
You can read the full excerpt online HERE.
Ana: 4 – bad but not without some merit
Thea: 5 – Take it or leave it
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