‘Make Me No Grave’ by Hayley Stone

Almena Guillory, better known as the Grizzly Queen of the West, has done plenty to warrant the noose, but US Marshal Apostle Richardson enforces the law, he doesn’t decide it. When a posse tries to lynch Almena ahead of her trial, Apostle refuses their form of expedited justice – and receives a bullet for his trouble. Almena spares him through the use of dangerous flesh magic but escapes soon after saving him.   

Weeks later, Apostle fears the outlaw queen has returned to her old ways when she’s spotted terrorizing Kansas with a new gang in tow. When cornered, however, Almena makes a convincing case for her innocence and proposes a plan to take the real bandits down. Working with a known killer opens Apostle up to all sorts of trouble, not the least being his own growing attraction toward the roguish woman. Turning Almena away from vengeance may be out of the question, but if he doesn’t try, she’ll wind up right where the law wants her: at the end of a rope.

And if Apostle isn’t careful, he’ll end up joining her.   

For the most part, this was the story of Federal Marshal Apostle Richardson’s journey from moral certainty and scrupulous rule-following to a world-view that accommodates moral ambiguity and the need to act in accordance with his conscience even if that means not following the law to the letter.

Two things drive this journey. The first is his encounter with a notorious outlaw who turns out not to be who he expected her to be. The second is his recognition that his rigid rule-following is partly attributable to his determination not to be like his violent and often drunken father. He begins to wonder if he follows the rules not because he believes in them but because he worries that if he stops his true nature will emerge and he will become his father.

I know, I know. This is a Weird West story, filled with outlaws, bank robberies, lynchings, lawless towns, vengeful posses, gunfights, knife fights, murders, attacks on stagecoaches and locomotives and the occasional miraculous healing, and I’m making it sound very dry. It’s not that dry, but it’s not a wild tale of derring-do either. This is, at its heart, a morality tale.

I had a good time with it. Apostle Richardson is an easy man to travel with. He’s passionate and action-oriented but he punctuates that with moments of reflection. He has a likely-to-be-fatal need to be heroic and stand up for what’s right even in the face of overwhelming odds but at least he recognises that compulsion as an aberration worthy of analysis.

The outlaw Almena Guillory is nicely-drawn and cliché-free. Accepting her miraculous power to heal other people’s wounds by taking them onto herself and or passing them on to others is no more of a stretch than being asked to accept the reality of vampires or werewolves in an Urban Fantasy novel. I had to work a little harder to suspend my disbelief enough to accept that she passed as a male officer in the Union Arm, saw combat in the War Between The States and that she was part of Abraham Lincoln’s entourage.

What I had no difficulty in believing was the way in which she dealt with Richardson. She saw him clearly and knew exactly which buttons to press. The relationship between the two of them is not a romance so much as a continuous reassessment of each other and themselves.

There were a couple of times when what seem to me to be anachronisms jarred me out of the story: the use by both Guillory and Richardson of twenty-first-century gender pronouns when describing someone who didn’t self-identify as male or female seemed unlikely in Kansas in the late nineteenth-century (especially given the ongoing hostility to trans people in modern day Kansas); and having one of the few female characters explain to Guillory that she wanted to ‘change the narrative’ around the opportunities open to women felt totally out of place.

Still, the plot was clever. It propelled the action forward and kept me guessing at the outcome and made the whole story more entertaining. I found the resolution quite pleasing, partly because it side-stepped convention and remained true to the natures of Richardson and Guillory.

Oliver Wyman does a great job with the narration and I recommend the audiobook version of this novel. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.

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