Maybe it’s because I’m from Kansas, but I have a soft spot for Westerns. Heresy by Melissa Lenhardt was my favorite book of last year, and what I loved most about it was the focus on female characters and the inclusion of people of color and varying sexual persuasions and gender identities (i.e. people who have always existed but often get written out of histories or, if they are included, are problematically represented). I went on the hunt for more books that capture the true diversity of the West, and here are the six titles I came up with. Yeehaw!
Gunsmoke and Glamour by Hillary Monahan
Talk about delightful! This is a Western with a hefty serving of fantasy and a side of romance—an unstoppable combo, if you ask me. Clayton Jensen is a marshal, but being half-fae he specializes in “weird” cases. He’s got more problems on his hands than just enforcing the law, however, as his fairy ex-girlfriend Cora enlisted a witch to put a curse on him. When Jensen kills the witch in self-defense, the wrath of her many witch sisters descends upon him. Now he’s running for his life with his trusty sidekick Doc Irene, a transwoman and physician who can usually patch Jensen up but is no match for the magical sickness caused by the curse. Also along for the ride is Cora’s sister, Adelaide, the bawdiest, bustiest fairy prostitute you’ll ever have the pleasure of meeting. Rowdy fun from start to finish!
Cowboy Rising by Mia Hopkins
This is more contemporary cowboy romance than Western, but I couldn’t resist including it. It’s also a novella, which means you can binge the whole thing in a day. Georgia is a reporter, sent to the MacKinnon ranch to get the scoop on their organic beef operation. Her interview subject, Daniel MacKinnon, is as reluctant to talk to her as he is to be back working on the ranch—he got an engineering degree and hoped to chase his own dreams, but family obligations pulled him back home out of a sense of duty. I’m a sucker for both nerdy and curmudgeonly heroes, so I was on board immediately with Daniel’s whole smart-but-grouchy vibe. And if you like this one, there are four other novellas in the series.
Make Me No Grave by Hayley Stone
I didn’t know until I started working on this post that “weird Westerns” were a thing—meaning Westerns with elements of fantasy thrown in—but after loving Gunsmoke and Glamour and then seeing the label also applied to this book, my interest was officially piqued. This book is also about a marshal, but while G&G is fun and whimsical, Make Me No Grave is dark and gritty (in a really good way!). Apostle Richardson is the quintessential good guy, who thinks right and wrong is generally a straightforward distinction. But when he encounters Almena Guillory, a notorious yet beguiling outlaw who saves his life with flesh magic despite knowing he intends to arrest her, his moral code is thrown for a loop. When she escapes his custody and goes on the run, Richardson’s pursuit of her becomes all-consuming—and not just because he wants to catch a wanted criminal. There’s a lot to love here, but my favorite part was the setting—southeast Kansas, where much of my husband’s family is from. It was a hoot to hear familiar names like Cherryvale, Coffeyville, and Baxter Springs called out. I listened to the audio version, and narrator Oliver Wyman is fantastic—he nails Richardson’s gravelly twang.
Whiskey When We’re Dry by John Larison
Looking for a Western more in the historical fiction vein? Whiskey When We’re Dry is about Jessilyn, who as a teenager finds herself alone and with few options on her family’s homestead. Her mother died in childbirth, her father who raised her has also passed, and her brother Noah left home after a disagreement with their father and became an outlaw. Knowing she can’t manage their cattle by herself, Jess dresses in men’s clothes and sets out to find Noah and bring him home. She falls in with a group of mercenaries working for the Governor, a rich man who controls just about everything that can be controlled in such a wild place. The Governor is desperate to find Noah because his holdings have been targeted by Noah’s band of outlaws, and Jess figures working for him lines up with her purposes pretty well. This is a book about family and sacrifice, and all the different forms love can take. Jess’s voice is a memorable one—stoic, but with deep feeling underneath.
Tempest by Beverly Jenkins
Ms. Bev’s books are like a warm hug. If you want to read about good people being good to each other, look no further. I love how she incorporates real (and sometimes difficult) history into her stories, and she frequently features not just a token POC character, but a full cast of them. In Tempest, Regan Carmichael arrives in Wyoming Territory as a mail order bride for Dr. Colton Lee, whose first wife died in childbirth. He wants his daughter Anna to grow up with a mother so he decides to remarry. He tells Regan up front that he doesn’t intend to fall in love again, but her independence and zest for life might just win him over if they don’t kill him first. Case in point: before they’re even formally introduced, Regan shoots her betrothed with her trusty Winchester when she thinks he’s trying to rob her stagecoach. Clearly these two have an uphill battle to happily ever after. I am wary of children in romance novels because I find reading about parenting to be kind of a snore, but Anna is adorable and shy and scared to live her life and watching Regan open her up to new experiences is just lovely.
The Devil’s Revolver by V.S. McGrath
One more fantasy Western to round out the group—and this one is the darkest by far. Hettie Alabama is a girl on a mission. Her father had a secret past life she knew nothing about as the leader of a band of outlaws and wielder of a cursed weapon called the Devil’s Revolver. Now Hettie’s parents are dead, her sister has been kidnapped, and it seems every bad guy in the West is after the gun which is now in her possession. Hettie can’t tell who is good and who is bad, who’s on her side and who’s against her, which makes for a decidedly uneasy read. I love the worldbuilding in this one, the way magic is everywhere but different people can use it in different ways and it’s not all created equal. A dark, violent, messy ride (and there are two more books in the series if you get hooked!).