Erin Bowman is a master at crafting endings.
I finished an ARC of Retribution Rails only moments ago and I’m sitting here with a big, dumb smile on my face because it was the perfect amount of closure and such a gorgeous tribute to the first book. By the way, you could totally read Retribution Rails without reading Vengeance Road first, but I wouldn’t recommend it. There are quite a few cameos that made me do the dumb grin, and I don’t think you’d have the same overall experience if you hadn’t read Ms. Bowman’s prior novel before trying this one.
First, let’s get the disclaimer out of the way: I received this book free, from NetGalley, in exchange for my honest and unbiased review. Now onto the review.
Retribution Rails, rather than being a sequel, is a companion novel to Vengeance Road. If you’d like a refresher, here’s my review of the latter.
The story follows Charlotte Vaughn and Reece Murphy, two young Westerners trapped in unfortunate situations. Reece—better known as “The Rose Kid”—is a renowned outlaw and feared for his supposed cruelty. He works with The Rose Riders, a gang who introduced themselves in Vengeance Road, but this faction runs under Luther Rose, the half-brother of Waylan. Reece has been forced to ride with the outlaws for years, all due to an unfortunate mission that leaves him at the mercy of Luther.
Charlotte Vaughn is a young, aspiring journalist, determined to make a name for herself despite her conniving Uncle, who has stolen credit for everything good and credible that her family has done. With the death of Charlotte’s father, the owner of a mine and an investor in several large projects including the A&P Train Line, Uncle Gerald has sunken his fingers into the remains of the Vaughns’ fortune, and it’s up to Charlotte to thwart his plans.
We’re reintroduced to several familiar settings, like Prescott and Wickenburg, and two very dear characters: Kate and Jesse Colton. That was such a welcome surprise; I figured that the two of them would make a cameo appearance, but they’re very much central to the plot and have an active role for at least three quarters of the story. Also… they’re expecting! It’s so fun to see Kate as the hardcore pregnant lady, a baby in her tummy and two guns in her hands.
We get to look into their family dynamic, ten years after the events in Vengeance Road, which I thought was really sweet on Ms. Bowman’s part. She totally could have written them off—“Oh, Jesse and Kate are fine and living somewhere and they have two kids,” but no. She fleshes out their story even further, and I’m glad for it.
I’m dying because I don’t want to give away too much information, but also I want to talk about everythingggg. It was so good!
Let’s talk villains. Luther is just as dastardly, just as driven, and just as unforgiving as his deceased brother; but rather than going after money, like Waylan, Luther operates off of a skewed sense of love and loyalty. He truly loves Reese Murphy as a son, though his way of displaying that love is horribly twisted. Kate states in the first book that “money makes monsters of men,” but Luther’s motivation is stated clearly and on his own terms: “Love makes us do odd things.” And I think that this quote encompasses the theme of the entire book. Every character in this story is working out of compassion: Reese, to make right his sins. Charlotte, to save her family. Jesse and Kate, to protect the safe-haven that they’ve created together. Gold is an afterthought in this story, which I thought was a good decision on Ms. Bowman’s part, because not only do we explore a new set of characters that are fundamentally different from the cast of Vengeance Road; we also get to observe aspects of characters whom we are already familiar with, so we don’t get tired of them. Not that I could get tired of Kate and Jesse.
Another cool thing about this story is that Kate and Jesse were really young in the first book; I think something like seventeen and around twenty, I’m not sure. In this one, they’re each ten years older. They’re adults. They deal with the situation with all the experience and confidence of adults. I’m not sure exactly how to describe it, but you can tell that they aren’t the same since the events in Superstition Canyon and everything that happened afterwards.
While I initially found Charlotte pretentious and a bit whiny, her character development is stunning. She’s an admirable person from the beginning: as a journalist, she wants to chase the truth. By the end of the novel, her desire to state the facts and reveal the truth to the world remains, but she’s come to understand that humans are complex beings, not entirely black and white, and this affects her world-view greatly. Reese is also incredibly dynamic, but what I found most interesting is that he starts off as a character who very much craves death but by the end of the tale, he’s learned that in order to move past everything he has done, he’s got to face his demons. A lot of gorgeous moments of character maturation crop up, especially when Reese has to betray his gang, who are pretty much the only family he’s had for the past few years. And there’s a ton of introspection that plays into both characters, which makes them much more relatable and much more sympathetic.
What was most noticeable for me was the rapid change in dialect. Charlotte speaks like a journalist: her words are clear, free of the if’ns and yers and the western accent that’s so tangible in any other character’s speech. She also strings together long sentences that are full of analogies, metaphors, and description. I remember thinking that her thoughts read like a novel, and I think it’s an interesting detail that Ms. Bowman included on her part. I appreciated it. And that ending. Oh my goodness. She kept me on my toes even after all the action was over.
I’ve already said so much and I want people to form their own opinions, so that’s it for my review. I really, really loved this book, and I thought that it was a perfect way to end the story of Jesse and Kate, while also introducing us to a new cast of equally intriguing characters. I think that she could definitely do more with the series, focusing on the Native Americans or perhaps another aspect of the Wild West, but I highly recommend this series to anyone with interest in the gun-slinging, fast-paced, high-octane-high-stakes adventures of cowboys and outlaws.