Full disclosure: I was given a free physical copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
I’ve read plenty of unique genres like comic thrillers, but none have been as bizarre as the western-fantasy hybrid. I’ve read plenty of fantasy, yet I’ve never read any westerns. When I came across the novel What Was Your Name Downriver: Tales of the Shattered Frontier by Anthony Lowe, which happens to fall into that genre, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Now that I’m done with it, I can say that it’s great…and then the main characters get off the boat.
Consisting of a novella and two short stories, What Was Your Name Downriver: Tales of the Shattered Frontier tells the stories of two women – Evaline Cartwright and Trivan Esterhazy – who meet on a riverboat and navigate a hostile environment with wit and weapons as they try to get back to civilization.
I’ve never read a book that contains both western and fantasy elements, but it works. Lowe uses the more familiar aspects of each genre to make something that feels new and avoids the cliched pitfalls. Even though I’ve never read any westerns, I’ve watched some western films. I was able to identify some recognizable tropes like the standoff, gambling, and trying to resolve issues with guns, but they’re done in such ways that feel natural. With the fantasy genre, I was able to identity some of its familiar elements like magic and discrimination against the unknown.
In addition, the voices of many characters fit right into the western atmosphere. Everytime I heard a person talk in the book, I felt I was there with them on the riverboat or in the saloon. For example, this set of dialogue spoken by one of the men at a gambling table on the riverboat occurs at the very beginning of the book:
“Tell you what I heard,” said one of the men, waiting his turn. “Feller gets stopped by a lawkeeper near Little Horn. Middle of the night. He gets stopped on account of the five or maybe six, ‘rathlings tied up in his cart. Lawkeeper shines a light, sees the tears in the young’uns eyes and their little knifey ears. ‘What is the meaning of this?’ asks the lawkeeper. He’s reachin’ for his gun at this point, I think.”
The man with the cart, he just can’t stop smiling. He just looks at the lawkeeper and says, ‘A kindness, mister. A kindness. These children is without their parents. Orphans,’ this man keeps saying. ‘Orphans, believe you me.’ The lawkeeper ain’t buying it. He asks the man, ‘How do you know them ‘raths is orphans? How do you know?’
And the man with the cart replies, and he’s still smiling when he says, ‘I know they’s orphans ‘cause I killed their parents myself” (p. 1-2).
Lowe clearly has spent time reading western books and watching movies in that same category.
I also liked the protagonists – Evaline and Trivan. Initially, they are seen as the complete opposites of one another. Evaline is a bounty hunter with a reputation, while Trivan is a shy half-rath who’s forced to run after her father’s death and after violence was inflicted onto her. And yet, like the genres in the book, they surprisingly mesh well. They both want to leave their pasts behind. Also, their wants and needs don’t feel too contrived. In fact, the short story “The Horse Thieves of Ariasun County” reveals Evaline’s backstory and why she would go to great lengths to protect someone like Trivan. I really enjoyed reading that novella. Anyway, the main story is a great buddy film but in book form. Like other readers, I wish Trivan was a little more developed, yet I know that Lowe will probably have more titles in The Shattered Frontier series, so there will be plenty of chances for her to grow.
Before I forget, the short story “Gunfight at the Thornmount Colossus” takes place after the events of the novella. It continues the banter between the Evaline and Trivan as the former wants to go to a gunfight. The latter tries to convince her not to go because the gunslingers in the books she reads always live, but that doesn’t happen in real life. She also doesn’t want Evaline to die (p. 176-177). Yet beyond that, it didn’t leave much of an impression on me.
Now, I bet all of you are wanting to know why I said that the collection was great and then they got off the boat. That was my way of saying that it was engaging until roughly that point. Once they left the riverboat, Evaline and Trivan were going from one place to another so fast that it got pretty confusing. Luckily, in the midst of all of that, there were some great moments like Evaline warning Trivan not to attack the imaginary people, saying that the “best revenge is leaving them behind” (p. 105).
Evaline ends up shooting those scoundrels because she didn’t know them.
What Was Your Name Downriver: Tales of the Shattered Frontier by Anthony Lowe is an enjoyably unique collection of stories that effectively blends the western and fantasy genres. It also captures the voices of characters that one would find in the former category, and like a pair in a buddy movie, the protagonists are memorable together. I would recommend it to those who not only read a lot of western and fantasy novels, but also to those who like stories that involve two people on opposite ends who have to work together. It didn’t always grab my attention, but when it did, it did in a good way.
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