Vengeance Road, by Erin Bowman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
New York, 2015
Zora: 4.5 STARS ★★★★½
I’m not going to lie: half of the reason I picked this book was that its cover is so cool. There’s risk involved when picking a book based on its cover art; for example, Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen has a gorgeous cover, but I utterly despise the novel itself. A lot of young adult literature has the same type of cover, actually. It’s a close-up of either a girl’s face or of her eye, stylishly repainted in photoshop, with a title like “Daughter of the Blood Throne.”
This cover is unique, and much more eye-catching as a result. I love covers like this, though I hardly ever see them. The closest equivalent I can think of is the cover of The Marvels by Brian Selznick, one of my all-time favorite books. The cover is complex, and elements in it (the birds and Latin inscription) are important to the narrative. Vengeance Road does the same. Keep an eye on those dual pistols on the cover!
Vengeance Road uses Western tropes and dialect with style. I love her main character, Kate Thompson. I’ve found that a lot of YA books have bland main characters, and I was happy to find that Kate’s badassery doesn’t get in the way of her personality. Xena and I were both surprised by the intensity of the opening, but pleasantly so!
The dialect used by the main character may have been inaccurate, but it portrayed Kate’s thoughts and personality pretty well. I’d give the dialect a ⅖, but I’d give the imagery a ⅘.
The secondary characters are Jesse and Will, Kate’s traveling companions, and Liluwye, a young Native American girl. Bowman shows Liluwye’s Apache culture with respect, and does not make her a genre cliche. Jesse is Kate’s love interest. A lot of YA books have boring male love interests, but Jesse manages to have plenty of personality and agency. Thank goodness.
This book easily earned its 4.5 stars, with the .5 subtracted only because of the somewhat clunky dialect. See Xena’s review below for more about that!
Xena: 4 STARS ★★★★
I was surprised that Zora picked this novel because Western is not her usual thing, but I agree about the cover. Teagan White, the artist, gets a big shoutout for the beauty and originality of her design.
I’m also happy to say that Erin Bowman, the author of Vengeance Road, has created an absorbing, rule-breaking tale with a heroine I really like. I was surprised by the gritty opening followed by some understandable swearing, drinking, and killing by the heroine, who is avenging her father’s murder. I expect some parents and readers are going to be shocked. But why should we be, when this behavior has been standard for male heroes in revenge Westerns for decades? I salute the toughness and resolution of Kate, as well as the cross-dressing device that works well to allow her to survive in a lawless world.
I liked the novel despite the use of one of my ultimate pet peeves–dialect. I usually throw dialect novels against the wall. With the exception of some dead geniuses like Twain and Chopin, I find most writers struggle to capture the real sound and lexicon of regional speech. It’s distracting when dialect doesn’t sound like the actual people who speak in that manner. And I did feel that Bowman’s dialect was flawed and inconsistent. She didn’t deploy some of her verb tenses correctly, in my opinion. Westerners didn’t always say weren’t instead of wasn’t, not even in the 19th century. Sometimes, those folks did the opposite (used wasn’t when the correct form should be weren’t), but Bowman doesn’t vary her tenses authentically. In addition, Bowman sometimes throws in high level Latinate vocabulary that really sticks out as not suited to her characters (‘deteriorated’). As far as inconsistency, one example is the odd choice of Kate’s phrase “bats fleeing hell” when later in the novel, Kate uses the word “outta” without any problem. I know as a historical writer myself that it’s possible that Bowman or her copy editor found that the phrase “bats outta hell” did not exist in 1877. If that’s true, the author should avoid the cliche completely, not perform a distracting modification that makes the reader say “Whaaa?” and breaks the flow of the narrative.
However, Bowman’s heroine is so appealing and so strong that she overcame the distractions of the dialect. And that’s saying something, in a YA world filled with tough heroines who often remain cardboard cutouts. Kate leaps off the page and really deserves her own movie, directed by Clint Eastwood. I hope she gets it. This is one Western gal who will make you yell and cheer and mutter “Yes!” when she dishes out justice, frontier-style.
Content Advisory: Western-style violence including hangings, shootings, and stabbings. Profanity. Limited alcohol consumption. Rated PG-13.