Monday, April 12, 2010

Male Monday: Year of the Horse

Year of the Horse by Justin Allen 2009

Rating: 2.5/5

IQ “A person’s an American because he wants to be. That’s all. [Jack]

“I’m not sure I understand.” [Lu]

“America isn’t a place, exactly. And it’s not a people either. It’s an idea. If you believe in it, then you’re an American.

“But that would mean everybody’s an American.” Lu commented “Anybody can believe.”

“Anybody can,” Jack agreed. “But not many do. It isn’t always the easiest thing to believe in. America falls short about as often as it succeeds. More often, some would say. But that doesn’t mean its worthless.” Pg. 317

In the case of the above quote, the I in IQ stands for Interesting. I think the aforementioned quote is quite interesting, mainly because I don't know if everyone would agree if that's what it means to be an American.

Year of the Horse is a Western tale mixed with supernatural elements. Yen Tzu-Lu (nicknamed Lu), is the son of Chinese immigrants. One day, his grandfather's store receives a mysterious visitor, Jack Straw (more of a legend than a man). Jack wants Lu to accompany him and the rest of his gang to find gold that has been stolen from the leader, John MacLemore (really Jack is the leader and MacLemore is the boss who pays everyone). Lu will be the explosives expert. Along with Lu, MacLemore and Jack, the gang consists of Sadie MacLemore (the young daughter of John MacLemore), Chino (a Mexican outlaw), and Henry Jesus (freed slave and former Union soldier who is now a marksman and buffalo hunter). They set off into the Western frontier where they encounter nature, animals, not so friendly people and a bit of magic.

My main problem with this novel was the characters. They had such potential on paper; a diverse group of characters setting off on a Western supernatural adventure. However they remained firmly stuck on paper. Lu was passive throughout the entire novel. I didn't understand how he could just go along with Jack and a bunch of strangers. The reader does not see Lu agonizing over this fact (although he does worry about leaving his mother), we don't see how Lu feels about a lot of things. He observes and in my opinion, he never fully manned up. He did what he was told to do and didn't show much spine. There was no character growth. Chino, Henry, the MacLemores and even Jack fell flat. They broke down some stereotypes, but only stereotypes that people would have had during their time (I doubt a person in the present would still think African Americans can't read, but then again....), I wanted to see the characters become more than just the African American, the Mexican, the Girl Who Dresses Like a Man and the Mysterious Leader. They remained encased in their roles and the reader barely catches a glimmer of their personalities. The plot sounded good, but it wasn't executed well. There was a lot of stopping and starting. A few times, I forgot what the gang was searching for. Also, I was expecting more action. This may however, be due to the romanticizing of the Western era. The ending was a bit awkward too, it sort of ended on an odd note.

I did like the setting of the story and the historical aspect of Year of the Horse. The author is very attentive to details and through Lu we learn a lot about how things were done on the frontier; from shooting guns to skinning buffalo. The history nerd in me loved all the details! The gang also meets some interesting characters, including a family of Mormons and a man named Bill who has a pet lion, Sweetheart. The reader doesn't spend much time with any of the minor characters that the gang meets on the way, and I would have liked to have read more about them (especially Bill and the Mimbrachua, a Native American tribe). I also appreciated the Mark Twain references, especially in the prologue. It's probably one of my favorite parts. The prologue is reminiscent of the prologue to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (and apparently, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which I have not read) in that the author assures the readers that everything is a fact, nothing is censored and that the novel should not be kept from the "inquisitive adolescent reader". It also threatens legal action against any who claim this book is fiction, only for adults and too wild for readers. In other reviews I've read that this novel makes references to Washington Irving's work, but I am unfamiliar with his writings, so I can't say. I also enjoyed the infusions of magic that ran throughout this book. They make the story more unique.

Year of the Horse is a well researched novel with a unique setting and factors in the plot, but it never fully reaches up to its potential. With a diverse cast, Western setting and paranormal activity, it has the potential to truly be outstanding. However, the characters remained blank with no personalities, little action and the plot didn't flow very well. The use of magic does help the novel stand out and move the plot along, but at some points it seemed to be more of a convenient excuse as to how a character could do something. The novel does have an interesting setting and the historical aspects are intriguing, but all the details may seem tedious to those who are not into Westerns or historical details.

Disclosure: Received from the author. Thank you Justin!

PS Read the cover story of Year of the Horse. It's had so many different covers! Plus, Justin is pretty funny. I like the end result, especially how the person on the cover could be any of the characters :)


  1. Huh, I didn't even know you finished the novel already. Clearly, I'm a crap discussion leader. *dies*

    I'm struggling a bit with my review too, for reasons that you already know about, lol. Also, I suspect that I enjoyed the experience of volleying emails with you and ninefly more than the story itself. Now I'm reminded to get cracking on my review, lol... it should be up soon...

  2. I am disappointed as well. With such a diverse r characterization was a stronger element. However, some of the other positive elements you mentioned still intrigues me enough to read it. Excellent review.

  3. @Ah Yuan-You were not! I LOVED the discussion. It was hard not to steal some of your guys' way more eloquent and deep thoughts on the book. lol. Looking forward to your review

    @Jan-Read it and see for yourself! I have read some positive reviews for it (it was an Unsung YA book). It's different, everything just didn't come together for me.

  4. I am ashamed to say I still haven't finished this book...after ah yuan spoiled me that Bill doesn't come back, I kinda lost some of my motivation...
    I agree with a lot of the points here, and sadly that means there isn't much incentive for me to keep going...I will try =X
    I did enjoy our discussion a lot though, it will help me a lot writing up the review that I would otherwise struggle a lot at lol


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