I realize it’s been a while since I’ve posted on my blog, and some might be wondering where I’ve been. The short answer is reading and working. I’m trying to find a publisher for my new contemporary fantasy book, Funky Dan and the Pixie Dream Girl, and I’m about half-way through the Dresden Files, my new addiction.
While submitting a space opera manuscript of mine to Aethon Books for consideration (jury’s still out as of this writing), I came across a “weird west” novel called Make Me No Grave by Hayley Stone.
I feel stupid for asking but, why hadn’t anyone told me we could combine fantasy and western genres before?! I already love sci-fi westerns like Yasuhiro Nightow’s Trigun, but mixing paranormal/fantasy with western? Ho boy, what an idea! So I marked the book as “to read” on my Goodreads list and kept it in the fringes of my memory as I requested that my local library order a copy.
Because my library is awesome, they ordered a copy of Stone’s book and reserved it for me, sending me a text to say it was in. Having just finished the sixth Dresden files book, I put the series down for a week to start this weird west novel.
It took a couple chapters for my brain to get into the mood for a western. I’ve been so hooked on Dresden, that my brain treated anything other than urban fantasy with contempt. Even though this was a book I’d been waiting for, Jim Butcher’s series had my attention hogtied.
Still, I started Stone’s book. And about the start of chapter three, the gears in my stubborn mind ground and shifted into western mode. I love westerns, both movies and books. But my pool of western reads is shallow, mostly Louis L’Amour novels (the Hopalong Cassidy novels being my favorite), True Grit, and The Sisters Brothers.
At chapter three, I started liking this book. And at chapter 10 when Apostle and Almena reunited, I started to love Make Me No Grave.
For those unfamiliar, the story follows a U.S. Marshal named Apostle Richardson, a real white knight who thankfully comes into some harsh reality and character development throughout the book. The other main character is that of Almena Guillory, the “Grizzly Queen of the West,” and my favorite part of this story.
Fortunately for me, the book is written in first person, which I prefer to third person, both in writing and reading. And that helped the transition from Dresden, which is also written in first person. I like to be in the head of the narrator. It helps me focus on the parts of any story I love best, the characters.
I will happily take a character-driven story over a narrative-driven story any day. Because at its worst, a character-driven story can have the most boring plot, but if I love the characters, I’ll stick along for the ride. If a story is great but has dull characters, let me off the ride.
Also fortunate for me, this seems to be a largely character-driven story. And I what I love most about it is the evolving relationship between Almena and Apostle. The murderer with traces of mercy keeps telling the Marshal, “Come down here.” And the Marshal who has traces of a temper keeps telling the criminal to rejoin him up here. It’s their tango that moved me through this story of “Will she pull him to her?” or “Will he pull her to him?”
It was irresistible. And it generates the same admiration for a good Selina Kyle/Bruce Wayne relationship I love to devour.
The other characters in the story I could take or leave. We’re supposed to have some sort of build-up between Almena and the man that abandons her, but that goes nowhere. Maybe it’ll be addressed in a further book. The marshals that ride with Apostle for a time seem like they’ll be bigger characters than they end up, but they get swallowed by the gravity of attention drawn to Almena and Apostle. In the end, they become nothing more than punching bags for the plot.
The story’s villain is interesting enough, I guess. But I would have liked just a little more development for them to really shine, ya know?
Speaking of them, kudos for inserting a non-binary individual in a western story without it feeling hokey or forced. Song was a wonderful character. And this brings me to the magic of the story.
When an author introduces magic into a story, it’s a really powerful detail that can make or break the story. Do the rules make sense? Is the magic used as a deus ex machina?
The magic in Stone’s book is written well, mostly as a welcome undertone or sleight of hand detail. This isn’t Harry Potter where magic is being flung every which way, thankfully. Almena can absorb other people’s injuries and heal them. She can also dispense her injuries to others. It’s called “flesh magic,” and I’m perfectly fine with the magic never being 100 percent explained or given an origin.
Magic shows up in some parts of the story, sure. And when it does, it’s interesting how Stone weaves magic in and around her characters. But this story is much more of a western tale of frontier justice/romance with just a little magic sprinkled in, rather than A Wizard of Earthsea meets The First Fast Draw. And I enjoyed that.
The more an author introduces magic into their story, the more careful they have to be to keep it all in balance. The author is responsible for explaining the system, extra details, making sure it’s not overused/underused.
But with the level of magic that Stone inserts into her story, that one of the characters has some healing abilities (with limits), and there are a few others scattered through the country who can do similar things, the details never get out of hand. And I welcome that, gratefully. I’m glad Almena isn’t some Wolverine-esque character that can just charge into a barrage of bullets and sweat it off.
Another thing I love about this story is its length. I’m a lazy reader. Before Dresden, I used to finish about one book a month. My happy range for a book is about 200-400 pages, and Make Me No Grave clocks in around 330-ish. Call me a happy gal.
With my Dresden addiction, I’ve been driven to finish a book every week, reading about 50 pages on my lunch break at work every day and then finishing up the remnants on the weekends (because I’m exciting like that). And so I took that pace with this book, finishing it on a cooler fall day in Northwest Arkansas.
Aside from doing my morning run and a trip to Chipotle, reading this book on my couch curled up with a blanket is all I’ve done today. And I have zero regrets.
And if I’m ever graced with a sequel from Stone, I’ll happily read that as well. The ending to this book left me squinting and going, “Okaaaaaaay. . . fine,” while screaming on the inside for more Apostle and Almena.
Their evolving relationship and dance of will they or won’t they? It’s enough to drive me mad (in a good way) and leave me wanting more. That’s what I’d want in a sequel, more. I need another story with these two trying to figure out if they love each other enough to overcome some ethical differences.
I’ll say right here and now, I’m biased as all get-out. I loved Almena’s character. Apostle was a good foil, but I’d want the sequel to be written from the Almena’s perspective. The way she took this white knight and bent him just enough to her will for him to see some real changes in his philosophy is at the core of what I love about their relationship.
Toward the end of the book, maybe within the last 50 pages, I was screaming at Apostle, “Shred your morals! Just go with her, and be happy, dangit!”
But Stone is an author made of sterner stuff. And Apostle is no pushover. Almena doesn’t need to snap the bars in the jail cell window. She just needs to bend them ever so slightly.
Make Me No Grave has an entertaining enough plot, even if it weaves in some curious directions at time. I definitely didn’t expect a storyline sprinkled with Abraham Lincoln, but I’m certainly not complaining either.
Stone writes a good western. I didn’t question the whole thing took place in Kansas. But with characters as mesmerizing as Almena and Apostle? The story could have taken place in any location and any time. I still would have loved it. The weaker parts of the story are those few parts lacking Almena, but again, I’m biased.
If anyone is interested in purchasing this book for themselves, check it out here.