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Book Review: Year of the Horse by Justin Allen

Year_ofthe_Horse_HR# Genre: Western, Fantasy, Young Adult
# Hardcover: 352 pages
# Publisher: Overlook Press
# Publication Date: October 15, 2009
# Language: English
# ISBN-10: 1590202732
# ISBN-13: 978-1590202739
# Author Website: Justin Allen

Year of the Horse, by Justin Allen, is a literary fantasy that pulls mixes together the comedy of Mark Twain, the suspense of Washington Irving, and the imagination of the tall tales from the American West. Itself something of a tall tale, Year of the Horse blends fantasy, Wyatt Earp’s Wild West, and a touch of the contemporary to present the story of fifteen year old Tzu Lu, a young man living in the United States not long after the Civil War.

Lu, as he is known throughout the book, is the son of Chinese immigrants living on the banks of the Mississippi River. His mother runs a general store, his father died years ago, and his grandfather is a well known herbal healer. When the well-known gunfighter Jack Straw strolls into his mother’s shop, young Lu is excited, but is sure it has nothing to do with him. But just a few short hours later, Lu finds himself bound deep into the West, on a mission to recover hidden gold from a farm haunted by a demon who kills all who seek out the treasure. Working for the very man who first buried it, Lu befriends the religious Henry – whose skill with a gun cannot be matched; Friendly Chino – the kindly Mexican cart driver; Unexpected Sadie – the beautiful girl who wears men’s clothes; and the fatherly MacLemore – his employer and a man with a sad history.

Like Twain’s story of Huckleberry Finn, Year of the Horse gives the reader a young protagonist who sets out on a mysterious journey deep into the heart of wild nature and unforgiving hardship. Unlike many fantasy novels, the primary conflict in this story is not good versus evil, or hero versus villain, but rather man against nature. Lu and his companions are forced to encounter and overcome treacherous canyons, killer thunderstorms, and the depredations of the desert. While the culmination of the whole story is Lu’s encounter with the demon, that conflict provides little of the day to day suspense of the novel. It is the mere act of survival in a wild land keeps the reader glued to Lu’s story – much like in Gary Paulson’s well-known tale Hatchet.

Some things seem out of place or odd. It was confusing when Jack Straw left the party, as it was not entirely clear why he did, though it did provide opportunity for growth in the character of Lu, so the reason for it in terms of plot is known, if not the reason within the story. And, too, some readers might have wished that Allen played up the “magical” or “fantastic” elements a bit more. But Year of the Horse is a tall tale, and while the fantasy serves the narrative, the narrative never succumbs to the fantasy. The story never becomes about the fantastical elements, but rather about the character of Lu, through whose point of view the entire story us told. Some readers may find the ending a bit trite, as the story ends like a morality play or Aesop’s fable, with a principle to be learned. But isn’t that the purpose of any tall tale or myth? Surely it is to point the reader or listener toward good behaviors and away from bad, while being entertaining in the bargain.

Mormons do not come off well in this story, though Allen is being historically accurate, and those belonging to that faith should know that some of their history and some of their people are depicted as being less than savory. But in a bit of fairness, Allen does counterbalance the bad with the good, and Sadie is saved from an ignominious ending by a goodhearted Mormon man who follows the true tenets of his faith, rather than the charismatic leader.

Much of the time as I read the book, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” was playing in my head. The story has that unique flavor of storytelling that I always associate with Southern storytellers like Flannery O’Connor. A more modern and genre-specific comparison might be the fiction of Andy Duncan. Yet even such comparisons don’t quite catch the flavor of this narrative. Justin Allen has written a unique novel, one which may give birth to a new subgenre, in which the western and fantasy fiction are mixed, or then again it would be fair to say that Year of the Horse is a great literary fantasy that shows what can be done when an author chooses not to be limited by genre.

I highly recommend Year of the Horse to anyone from young adults to grandfers. Allen skillfully brings together all of the disparate elements of westerns, tall tales, fantasy, and contemporary fiction to create a work that is unique in both the fantasy and western canons. Well written, entertaining, and actionful, readers would do well to give Allen and Year of the Horse a try.