Retribution Rails is a YA western by Erin Bowman. It’s not a sci-fi/western, it’s not a fantasy/western, it’s not a dystopian/western, it’s straight up, 1880s western. And it’s so much fun.
The western is not a popular genre, especially with the YA crowd. You may be able to find crossovers with other genres, such as Firefly or Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton, but those are few. It’s even harder to find full-on westerns now. This should change.
There’s two main characters and points of view in Retribution Rails– a feisty (but not annoying) aspiring journalist, Charlotte, and the reluctant outlaw who accidentally kidnaps her, Reece. There’s revenge, shoot-outs, and fights on top of trains.
Retribution Rails is a companion novel to Vengeance Road, also a true-blooded western, and set a decade after it. Although they could be read separately, I would recommend reading Road, which was published first, before Rails just because of how incredibly well Bowman uses characters from one in the other. Rails perfectly balances “yay-I-know-and-love-that-character-give-me-more!!!” and “This is someone else’s story now, and they’re just as interesting.” Both stories show just how awesome westerns are.
Westerns are cool because they have certain elements that are lacking in other genres, and those elements have tons of potential.
Westerns have such a distinct setting- the ‘West’ is a part of the genre definition after all. The dusty desert, the rough mountains, and the trains all come together to make a striking background.
Rails has all of these aspects- Reece and Charlotte meet on a train, travel across a desert, and hide in the mountains. These all evoke the rough frontier, where the characters need to use all their skills to survive, which automatically makes your characters seem more capable than if they were in a more neutral, less threatening setting.
Even more broader than the setting, the whole feeling of a western is unique, with the dust and guns and horses and outlaws.
In Rails, there’s all of these things, and more. Hidden gold, retired gunslingers, slightly eccentric loners, secret pasts… It adds up to give the story a distinct feel that’s fun to play with. This is one of the best things to mix in with other stories. Logan is an excellent example of how this can give a neat twist to your story.
Westerns give characters more leniency to be larger than life. Look at Kate in Rails. She’s complex: eccentric and wise and fiery all at once, but she’s still a character, in the best possible way.
Plus, people can be nastier than they are in other genres- compare Reece from Rails to most other heroes. He kills people, he’s an outlaw, and he’s not all good. And in Road, Kate is just as bad- she’s out for vengeance and she doesn’t care who knows it. Road and Rails aren’t for a younger audience, but they embrace their characters in all their glory.
Sure, there’s bits and pieces of these aspects in many genres, but I want to see it embraced more, because it’s just plain cool. My brand-new work in progress is a western, because I’m drawn to the desert and the overall aesthetic. So when I read Retribution Rails, I loved all the classic elements of westerns rolled into one.
What about you? Do you read or write westerns?