The Western seems to be making a bit of a comeback these days so, after relishing every blood-soaked minute of Hell or High Water and HBO’s Westworld, I jumped at the chance to read an early copy of Davina Langdale’s The Brittle Star.
Coming of age story, Western, American Civil War story and courtroom drama all wrapped into one, The Brittle Star follows John Evert Burn from adolescence into manhood as he searches for his mother, who was abducted in a raid on their Californian ranch.
I was intrigued by the idea of a Western, usually the province of white, middle-aged, American males, written by a young British woman but, for better or for worse, Langdale holds true to the genre. She conjures up an evocative depiction of 19th century California and an especially effective picture of Los Angeles as a Wild West town. She also provides all the requisite pieces that we’ve come to expect: outlaw with a heart of gold, brothel-visiting, bar-room brawling, gun battles, etc. Though at times Langdale is guilty of falling into clichés, the story’s engaging cast of characters and evocative settings save the novel from becoming too formulaic.
Langdale’s most noteworthy accomplishment seems to be in her ability to draw together genres. Like Westworld’s marriage of western and sci-fi, The Brittle Star brings together disparate (although slightly more traditional) genres, transitioning from Western to Civil-War story to courtroom drama. My harshest criticism of Langdale’s novel would be that she takes on too much at times and, therefore, some of her character and story-building suffer. Langdale is occasionally forced to deliver information with little to no set up – btw: he’s now an alcoholic; btw: they just happen to know where some gold is buried nearby.
Spanning the continental states and several genres, The Brittle Star is an entertaining and impressive first novel. It is a fun and fast story and the 350-plus pages seem to fly by. A solid choice for your summer reading list.