First, a disclaimer. The author, Justin Allen, got in touch with me during the summer, and we have been in contact off-and-on ever since. He recently participated in an exceptionally lively Writer Wednesday. After I read and reviewed Slaves of the Shinar, his publisher sent me his second novel, Year of the Horse. Therefore, I have had more contact than usual with this author, and I can’t claim a completely impartial review. However, I can claim that I will be honest.
The Year of the Horse begins as Tzu-lu is procrastinating over a homework assignment. Right away, you know this is something different, eh? How many epic fantasies have you read where the character has homework? A visitor arrives at his parent’s shop, providing even more incentive for goofing off — especially when Tzu-lu realizes that the visitor is the famed gunfighter Jack Straw, who has come to visit Tzu-lu’s grandfather.
Naturally, Tzu-Lu must spy. A convenient keyhole makes this possible. There, he discovers that Jack has quite a history with both Tzu-lu’s grandfather and his dead father, plus he has some abilities that can only be described as magical.
The next day, Tzu-lu’s grandfather sends him off with Jack and a gang of men to help John MacLemore recover his stolen gold. With them are Henry, a black marksman, Chino, a Californio refugee, and Sadie, John’s teenage daughter.
In many ways, The Year of the Horse follows the same formula as The Hobbit. Like Bilbo, Tzu-Lu goes off on an adventure as an “expert” in something with which he only has limited experience. A Gandalf-like character goes with them. Their mission is to recover stolen gold. Tzu-lu becomes separated from his companions. The Gandalf-like character leaves them on their own after a time, and so on.
However, the story takes its own distinct direction while all of this is played out against an Old West backdrop. Vast tracts of unexplored territory. Indians. Mormons. Prejudice against everyone who doesn’t look or believe as you do.
And best of all, magic bullets!
All of the named places are fictional, but roughly coincide with an actual place. St. Francis is probably a fictional St. Louis. Hell Mouth might be the Grand Canyon, except it runs north and south. There’s something like the salt flats of New Mexico between Hell Mouth and the Mormon lands beyond — or it could be Death Valley. I looked up one county name and discovered that it was a fictional county invented by Faulkner.
Also, there’s an Easter Egg from Slaves of the Shinar that made me smile.
There is good and evil evenly distributed among all the groups that the gang encounters — kind of like in real life. The central characters all get along very well — almost too well. There is no troublemaker among the group to stir things up, unless it’s Sadie. The lack of conflict among the characters might have bogged down the plot if they all weren’t in conflict with the land itself. Unexpected things happen at every turn, such as a bolt of lightning sending their entire baggage train plunging over a cliff, separating Tzu-lu from the rest of his group. And who would ever have expected a pool of acid?
It’s hard to think of an “if you enjoyed” comparison, except if I were to compare it to Mark Twain. Tzu-lu is more like Huck than Tom, minus the abusive dad. Like Huck, he’s almost passive, and is seen as harmless to his enemies — an assumption they later regret.
You can probably tell that I really enjoyed Year of the Horse. I’d recommend it for any age, although very young children might find the typeface a bit small, and it’s not really packaged for Middle Grade readers, which the age of the protagonist would normally be perfect for. Oh, and since there is no legal drinking and smoking age when this takes place, the underage characters do both. However, I certainly don’t think they glorify such activities.
Year of the House is a delightfully different novel, as familiar as an epic fantasy, but with a distinctly American twist. I hope Mr. Allen finds a way to return us to these characters one day. I recommend it highly.