I went to two libraries today, one to check out some travel books for my mom and the other because it's closer to my house and it had a book I wanted. But I ended up checking out nothing since I had this beautiful book waiting for me. Without further ado, let me present the synopsis for Erin Bowman's Vengeance Road provided by Goodreads:
Revenge is worth its weight in gold.
When her father is murdered for a journal revealing the location of a hidden gold mine, eighteen-year-old Kate Thompson disguises herself as a boy and takes to the gritty plains looking for answers—and justice. What she finds are untrustworthy strangers, endless dust and heat, and a surprising band of allies, among them a young Apache girl and a pair of stubborn brothers who refuse to quit riding in her shadow. But as Kate gets closer to the secrets about her family, a startling truth becomes clear: some men will stop at nothing to get their hands on gold, and Kate’s quest for revenge may prove fatal.
A friend of mine uploaded a picture on Instagram with this book and I was immediately drawn to the cover. I'm going t gush about it a little more in my review, so prepare yourself.
(safe for those who haven't read this book)
Kate Thompson isn't like your everyday run of the mill young adult protagonist. She's on a mission and nothing's going to deter her from that path. What I have to say I admire about Kate the most was her voice. From the get go we're dropped in a 19th century world where order, law, and justice is what people make of it. They're a long way from civilization and deep in the Wild West, luck and fortune are given to those who are resilient and to be frank, tough. Life's tough on the American frontier and it forces Kate to make some tough decisions quick. We see it in the first chapter when she has to decide whether to follow her father's murderers before the trail goes cold or to put her father to rest. It's an easy decision for someone who's safe 150 years in the future, sitting comfortably in their favorite reading spot with their noses in a book, but for someone who knows little of the world other than what she's seen in the few miles from town to her homestead, those first pivotal moments are what establish the baseline of the novel. Which is a girl seeking a vengeance that no man, woman, or law can stop.
I want to be honest and say that I didn't think of Mattie Ross from True Grit a lot of the time, but that would be an obvious lie. I read True Grit a couple of years back for a college class and held it a pretty high pedestal; though that might have been because it was the only Western I've read and I was impressed with it. So coming into Vengeance Road, with a pretty similar plot, and I was really afraid I was going to end up closing the back cover and realizing the only thing I loved from this book after all was the cover.
Which reminds me...
The cover attracted me. There I said it. If I were a fly I would be fried because oh my Lord when I saw the cover I needed it on my shelf. I'm pretty strict with myself when it comes to books--- I won't buy a book no matter how pretty it is if I'm not interested in the plot, especially when I know I won't like it. And this was a YA title. I figured I wasn't going to. I haven't had any luck reading YA lately and on the brink of tossing all YA titles from my to-be-read list because they all just became formulaic. However it was books like Vengeance Road that gives me hope there are still a couple YAs out there that won't make me roll my eyes every page. But I'm digressing from my digression... I can't wait to put this on my shelf and show off the cover. While not YA, I bought another book for it's cover (coincidentally another Western) called The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt and ended up dropping it. I'm just glad it won't be facing the bookshelf heavens, but my smiling face.
Now something I found really engaging instead of irritating was the fact that the story's written in the present tense. I don't know if you're a nit picky reader like me, but I get incredibly distracted by narratives in the present tense. It was maybe 10 pages or so when I realized I was cruising smoothly through a point of view I would usually stumble over. Maybe it was because the style was meant to mimic the prose of 19th century Westerners... Maybe I was just excited for a thrilling read. I can't be sure, but in the end, who cares. If you're reading who cares if it's outside your comfort zone.
This is an adventure story, appropriately assisted by a map, and if I had to give a grade for the quality of the adventure I think I'd give it a 80%. I have no idea what giving a grade means but I wanted to try something new and fresh from reading, I think the terrain, obstacles, coincidences, mapping, stranger encounters and plot equate to a B. I hope this doesn't make it seem like the story falls flat, since a B is still above average.
A major difference between True Grit and Vengeance Road has to be the fact that there's romance intertwined into the plot. By no means it hovers over the vengeance theme, however as a YA, it's to be expected. The relationship between the Kate and the guy isn't staggering. No one will leave this and claim it's their favorite literary couple. However, I did find it one of the most real between YA couples. And it was one of the most authentic things I found about Kate. She wasn't just a girl seeking revenge for her father, she was still a girl who hadn't really encountered a first love or saw much of a future for herself. But with a guy, she started to really see what this quest would mean for herself---with a romantic partner or without them. I think out of millions of YA couples there are, I would rank Kate's and RL's (romantic lead) as top 10. Top 5 maybe if I try and remember if there are really that many YA couples that I actually like.
In my last review I mentioned how I've been on a quest for reads that center on women or have a predominantly female-led cast; and it wasn't until finishing Vengeance Road I realized I'm also on a quest for casts that are more diverse. I'm satisfied to say that Bowman delivers. Contrary to the name, Kate Thompson is half-white, half-Mexican, and she acquires the aid of a Native Apache girl in her quest. While there aren't many scenes with first or second generation Mexicans, there are references to Latin people, and Bowman does mention Chinese characters. While it isn't a lot, it's a lot more than I see nowadays. It doesn't discount the presence of non-whites in the Old West who usually only fulfill the purpose of antagonist and mustache twisting villain. While I know depicting Native Americans is a bit sensitive when it comes from a writer who isn't Native themselves, I found that Bowman depicted them in a respective and commemorative way. I only wish there were a couple more scenes with them.
By it's end I found that the fast-paced read to be a thrilling read. It's something you can read in a day and despite the high stakes, something you can relax with at the beach. For this, I found very little to complain about.
I give this book 4/5 stars.
"How marvelous books are, crossing worlds and centuries, defeating ignorance and, finally, cruel time itself."
- Gore Vidal
Next To Read:
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
River Song's Spoilers:
(unsafe for those who haven't read this yet, so don't read this section)
I wasn't lying in the review section, I really did enjoy Kate's relationship with Jesse and her point of view of what wasn't their relationship. Even though the emotional swing went back and forth for a while, this is a girl who largely spent her time with solely her father, and when she did encounter boys her age they didn't tickle her fancy. I think it was realistic that when one finally did reciprocate those feelings, she question a lot of the actions he did that might seem unwarranted on the surface to everyone else.
Let's talk about Rose and his gang. While I think it's fair that as a 1st person POV, it might limit the personalities of characters we only see when our protagonist sees, however I wanted more from them. They were the antagonists and considering most of the time Kate was trailing them and just in the middle of the desert, we do see a lot of them. I just wish there was more to them than the flat, archetype of a Wild West villain. Creating the rose scar on the deceased (or soon-to-become-deceased) was a cool trait of the gang and I like that the villain used his name as a marker instead of initials (you see me Zorro? you see me Batman?). Also, another thing I liked about the gang was the different encounters Kate had with them. There's the first in Prescott--- her first real test to see how far she'd go in her vengeance, then the shoot out on the Agua Fria River, and Phoenix of course. Then her last one at the cache by the gold mine. It was enjoyable to see how she encountered the ruthless thugs, by killing each one, mentally preparing her for her big stand-off with Rose himself. Almost like a video game and she needed to level up with each death. Only she didn't kill all of them like she was checking them off from a list. One died by natural causes and one died by Rose himself.
I feel I need to talk about Will. His death didn't mean as much as I think Bowman meant for it to be. Plot-wise it made sense--- it gave Jesse a newfounded quest past the gold. But, when he died I didn't really care. It probably tied into the fact I didn't understand why he was rebuking Kate on Jesse's feelings. Jesse's his brother--- why patronize someone who is not only older, but a stranger to you? Put all that aside, he was a nice foil to his responsible, thoughtful, well-mannered brother.
Let me talk about that ending though. It was... how can I say it... disorienting. This woman comes out of no where, appealing to Kate with a name she'd never heard and it's pretty easy to guess it's her mom. I mean, if you didn't get that from the reference to an older woman who we'd never seen before that appeared near the mine--- something only Kate's parents and the Apache people knew about--- I don't know what to tell you. It was obvious to me. And the fact she was faking a ruse, pretending to be a hostage to garner on Kate's sympathies was just an easy solution to a suspenseful moment. Not lazy writing, just lazy plotting. That scene was predictable, and yet interesting. I said disorienting because I know Bowman wanted me to be shocked about the fact her mom was still alive, and Bowman wanted Kate to be emotionally comprised because it's a woman she loved and who she thought was dead--- but I just didn't like how it came about. She turns out to be in cahoots with Rose! Not surprising! The fact that she starts to monologue was just odd since in a moment like this--- no one would just reflecting on what happened in the past like they were reuniting after decades apart. She finishes explaining Kate's past to then turn on Rose. I'm sitting there thinking--- why?? They have a stand-off and then she tries to shoot Kate. Maybe it was an accident--- but then why did she mention there being "two" minds who knew about the mine that wasn't going to leave again. She pointed at Jesse then Rose, so why shoot Kate? I thought "her flesh and blood" was important to her. I mean, that's how she made it sound to Kate. Like she cared for her. Only--- she didn't really. She was just satisfied staying in the mountains. So: I'm not shocked when I should be by the mother's appearance, I don't sympathize a woman and her struggles after being abandoned since she was drowning in her greed, and then she shoots at her family when I can't be sure what her true feelings are. It might've been a twist if it was handled better. The fact that Rose made a legit deal with her is probably the most confusing. He offed his other men, no problem, but instead of overpowering this woman he could easily do, or just come back on his own, he's settling for a small amount of gold and is shocked when she turns on him.
Whew, I hope that all made sense. Because if so, you'll understand why my feelings toward that scene is all over the place. Good thing the ending was nice. I don't usually care for romance bookending a story when romance was just a subplot; but I liked it. I'll tip my hat to Bowman this one time.
Until Next Time,