Here's the big catch though, the reason westerns are coming back is because the genre is shifting to fit what readers want to read about today, while still staying true to the essence of what makes something "a western." Up until recently, in order to be called a "western" a book needed to be about the expansion of the west and the men who tamed it. It also had to be set from after the Civil War to the turn of the 20th Century. Okay, before I go any further, you can see right away why there is a problem with this definition-- mostly white men, very strict time frame, limited scope.
But there are other things that are appealing about westerns that many readers love and that this genre always got 100% right. For example, the rich descriptions of the beautiful landscape and the plots which place the characters in a morality play where revenge and redemption are at the center. These appeals are not unique to the western but they are things about the genre that fans also adore.
The new renewed interest in westerns uses these basic appeal factors and a broad definition of "The West" as a place, but not always in those former strict time constraints. These are stories of the west that add in something else, like another genre, a darker tone [but still with the underlying nostalgia of "The West" as a place, or are just plain "weird." They can now also be set anytime as long as "The West" as a place features prominently.
Basically, you could say, "these aren't your parents westerns" but then again, if you look hard enough, they kinda are. And the moral of the story today is...If you aren't paying attention to what is going on with westerns, you are missing out on a lot of excellent books.
Okay, now let's talk titles. Here are some books you have definitely heard of, books that are very popular and that all use western frames, motifs, and tropes prominently. At their essence these books are westerns, but interestingly, many of today's readers who enjoy these titles would not call themselves western readers:
- The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
- True Grit by Charles Portis
- And what will be one of the most popular series in the coming months-- The Dark Tower series by Stephen King
Now let's tackle diversity in the western. One of the best books of last year and one of my favorite reads so far this year is a traditional, quiet western written by a woman which features the true diversity of characters all interacting as they would have in that place and time- News of the World by Paulette Jiles. Click here for my full review and details.
Another diverse series that is a mystery-western mashup and has been around since 1990 [with new books still coming out] is also quite popular right now due to it's success on tv, Joe R. Lansdale's Hap and Leonard series. This series features two best friends in East Texas who solve crimes- Hap, a "good olde boy" white guy, and Leonard, a gay, black, Vietnam Vet.
Speaking of Lansdale, he is often referred to as the father of another popular subgenre, the weird western. You can use this link to see more detail, but basically, these are westerns that use science fiction, horror, and supernatural elements. The subgenre has been gaining in popularity as genre blending in general has become the norm. Goodreads has a list of Weird Westerns as does NoveList.
Some recent books I have read and reviewed which specifically blend the western and horror very well are:
- Last Train From Perdition by Robert McCammon which is actually book 2 in the vampire-western I Travel By Night Series.
- Zombie Gold by John L. Lansdale [brother of Joe R.]
- And the book I can't stop talking about-- In the Valley of the Sun by Andy Davidson
Use the links for each title to read a full review where I point out the well realized "western" aspects of each novel. And those are just the few I have read recently. You can use the Goodreads link to find more weird westerns.
But right now, my absolute favorite western is at the top of that "weird" list on Goodreads because it is new and AWESOME-- It's the novella [which are also a trend right now] River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey. Here is the plot summary from Goodreads:
In the early 20th Century, the United States government concocted a plan to import hippopotamuses into the marshlands of Louisiana to be bred and slaughtered as an alternative meat source. This is true.
Other true things about hippos: they are savage, they are fast, and their jaws can snap a man in two.
This was a terrible plan.
Contained within this volume is an 1890s America that might have been: a bayou overrun by feral hippos and mercenary hippo wranglers from around the globe. It is the story of Winslow Houndstooth and his crew. It is the story of their fortunes. It is the story of his revenge.That's right, it is an alternative history, traditional cowboy western, except instead of horses and cattle we have...hippos!
You may think this sounds dumb but I will tell you that it 100% awesome and except for the hippos, it's a straight up western.
This book is short so I am not going to give much except to point out that the characters are very diverse-- keeping with the trend in this reemergence of the western. The hero is gay, one character uses the pronoun they, and the biggest badass is a lady. It the the wild west filled with all of the actual "characters" who lived during the actual time, not a white washed version.
The character development is the bare minimum we need to enjoy this fast paced and fun western. The alternative history based on a real idea that could have been also adds to the enjoyment. As you are hooting and hollering along with the characters and the action [and you will be], it is cool to step back and realize that this is not silly...this could have been.
Oh, and did I mention hippos! I know I did, but they are given personalities just like the horses in a traditional western. You care about them, yes, but it is so fun to read about their habits, how they walk, how they are raised and bred, etc.... You cannot discount the enjoyment they add to the story.
The only negative about this book is that it is too short! A sequel is coming though. Phew!
Three Words That Describe This Book: fast paced, strong world building, fun
Readalikes: See this entire post.