Monday, December 31, 2018

Review: The Gunslinger's Vow

I can't help but feel like me ending 2018 with a "meh" read is some kind of metaphor.  Ask any reader what their definition of a "C" (or a meh) read is and the answers you get will vary.  For me, it's usually "I liked some stuff, thought other stuff wasn't so good, and it all came out in the wash."  That's how I felt about The Gunslinger's Vow by Amy Sandas, her first historical western with Sourcebooks and the first book in a new series.  What's good here is very good, but the rest of it? Meh.

Born and raised in Montana by a widower father, Alexandra Brighton has spent the last five years in Boston getting schooled on how to be a proper young lady by her Aunt Judith.  The hard work has just culminated in a marriage proposal from an eligible bachelor with political ambitions.  In a moment of panic, Alexandra agrees - quickly realizes what she's done and can only think to run.  She doesn't know who she is anymore.  Is she the girl she left behind in Montana?  Is she the girl her aunt has molded into a society princess?  One thing is for sure, she can't marry anyone until she finds out.  So she packs a bag, sneaks away, and heads home to Montana to reunite with her father - who, naturally, has no clue she's coming.

So we all know what happens next.  Alexandra survives the train ride west intact, but a broken down stagecoach and vagaries of travel means she's now stranded.  But never fear - she's gotten wind of a bounty hunter in town who just so happens to be heading towards Helena, Montana on business.  Surely he can be hired to take her the rest of the way. 

Malcolm Kincaid is hunting the man who murdered his brother, and his latest intel suggests The Belt-Buckle Kid (seriously?!) is holed up north of Helena.  This is vengeance a long time coming, so needless to say taking a pampered looking Bostonian princess along for the ride is not high on his list.  He turns Alexandra down flat.  However looks are deceiving and the Eastern lady is made of sterner stuff than Malcolm gives her credit for.  After a series of misadventures, they do end up traveling together.

I have to be honest - the pampered Eastern lady who finds herself out west is not a plot device I'm wild about, but the fact that Alexandra was born and raised in Montana, plus I'm always looking for new western writers, sold me on giving this one a whirl.  Unfortunately it never solidified for me, in large part because of Alexandra's uneven characterization and pacing issues.

Here's the thing: I'm supposed to believe that Alexandra is smart, resourceful, and prepared for the trials that an uncivilized western landscape can throw at her.  And, at times, she is.  But then she does boneheaded stupid stuff where I'm like, "Seriously, girl?!"  Oh, like not packing any practical clothing for the trip out west (this is explained away by her wanting to show her father what a "lady" she had become).  When Malcolm turns her down flat, and even though she has reservations, she hitches a ride with another party heading north who quickly rob her and leave her stranded in the wilderness (although to the girl's credit, she stays alive and doesn't panic).  And while her fiance' is no prize (typical guy with political ambitions who sees the heroine as a means to an end) - the fact is she accepted his proposal and immediately runs off - never mind she doesn't give her Aunt Judith a second thought.  We never meet Aunt Judith on page, and while she sounds like a positive snore, she also doesn't sound like a cruel witch.  In other words, the woman deserved some consideration.

To be frank, a lot of this nagging stuff smacked of convenient plot devices not terribly well executed. It didn't feel authentic or natural to the characters.

Alexandra's character isn't done much favors by the pacing of the story.  I was 30% through the book before the story started to go anywhere.  Then, after "stuff" happens and our couple has to spend a couple of weeks holed up in a cabin, the author sets about having the characters fall in love and succumb to their passions - which, great...but it drags on so long that by the time we get to the finish, the Big Moments of Alexandra reuniting with her father and the final showdown between Malcolm and The Big Bads isn't given nearly enough page count to spin out.  It feels terribly rushed.

Which makes it sound like there was nothing I liked about this book.  Au contraire!  As uneven as I found Alexandra's character at times, the author does a good job with her "self-discovery" arc and there were moments of insight that stopped me cold.
It was long past time that she stopped trying to please everyone else and finally accepted all of who she was. There would always be someone to find fault, but at least she would be real. She would be free.
He wanted to keep his distance today? Pretend he wasn't passionately involved in what had occurred between them?  Then fine. That was his choice.  She didn't want to doubt herself anymore.
When we talk about romance being a genre where women "win?"  I basically want to wallow in those above two passages for a couple of days.  So even if I found her an uneven character, by the time I rolled on to these moments in the story I was all about Queen Alexandra living her best damn life.

I'm not sure I'll read the next two books in this series (two more Eastern ladies heading west? Jury's still out), there's enough on the page here that I would read a Sandas western in the future.  Not a blazing success, but there were moments that carried me through.

Final Grade = C+


azteclady said...

Yeah, I don't know.

I feel like this is a premise that has been underserved for the longest time, when it can be use to highlight a truly resourceful, kickass heroine.

I hate to bring her up (because reasons) but Linda Howard had a pampered socialité who escapes a drug lord into a South America jungle, and she fucking RULES. She is helpless and knows it, but does her best to plan for her own shortcomings, instead of, you know, just "feisty-ing" her way through the book.
Example: since the only bottled water available to her is Perrier, she hoards a couple dozen bottles, wraps them in towels, and totes them out with her. As she's watched all day long, she snoozes at the pool most of the day, and spends the night studying the guards' rounds patterns, so she can find the safest spot to climb the fence. Etc.

The same could be done with a "gently reared, pampered East lady" going West. I wish more authors did it.

Wendy said...

AL: Now that you mention it - it basically takes the hero being incapacitated for him to realize that hey, maybe this Eastern lady isn't so helpless after all. Never mind that she manages just fine to ride a horse, take care of the horses, build a proper fire etc. while he's off hunting for their dinner while traveling. He dismisses her out of hand, judging her by her looks, and she just...lets him. It's kind of a borderline adversarial relationship for the first half of the story.

She was too uneven to be a truly "kickass" western heroine for me - but her arc of self-discovery and realizing what she truly wanted out of her life? That's what will stick with me about this book. Otherwise? Meh.