cowboys, clones: my first brushes with 2021 lit

As usual, I’ve kicked off my reading year mostly with titles I already owned, mainly releases from the year before that I just hadn’t quite gotten around to. But shiny new books are too exciting to resist for long, so I’ve got a couple of 2021 releases to review now!

Outlawed

First up is Anna North’s Outlawed, a January publication that reinvents history. Set in the 1890s west, the US has been torn apart and rebuilt as something new in the wake of the Great Flu, which decimated the population enough to inspire a total societal fixation on reproduction. Women are valued only for their ability to bear children- many children. Ada, our MC, is in her late teens when she faces trouble: she’s been married for a year, tried a second partner in desperation, but her womb remains empty. She joins a convent to escape being hung as a witch, discovers that there’s a whole community of barren women just trying to survive, and joins the Hole in the Wall Gang to reclaim some of what’s been lost to her and to others marginalized by a zealous society with its cornerstone in bigotry.

Outlawed is tricky for me to talk about, because I don’t think it really has anything new to say and yet it has been the most fun read I’ve picked up so far this year. The writing isn’t anything flashy- I marked only three quotations, and all of them were chosen for their ability to capture the story’s essence in various ways, not on the basis of remarkable wording. The format is straightforward, chronological with a single first person narrator in a book that would probably have been served better with a wider range of perspectives- North apparently wants to deliver these characters’ backstories and rationalizations, but doing so through one primary MC means that Ada asks a lot of nosy questions and the reader gets to roll their eyes as her companions just… tell her whatever she wants to know. But there’s such a playful tone to it all that I found it to be an utterly addictive read nonetheless. It’s a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously, that spins out a theme in a mildly ridiculous way and just has fun delivering its messages, which are good one even if you’ve heard them before. Not for content, but my experience with Outlawed had a lot in common with my experience of My Sister, the Serial Killer; I loved them both for being theatrical, entertaining, a bit absurd.

It takes two chapters to get past the character introduction and plot setup, but then we’re thrown into a world of women and non-binary characters dressed up like men, running heists and getting into trouble and helping each other out again. The cast is lovable and diverse; I had a slight reservation at first about barrenness being highlighted as The Ultimate Persecuted Thing when there’s still racism and homophobia active in this world as well, but in the end I think North does a fair job of highlighting one issue without belittling others. There are squabbles and particular alliances among the outlaws, but the complicated dynamics between them all adds to the strength and appeal of this diverse found family.

“‘It’s a way of holding us up,’ Elzy said. ‘It’s how the Kid reminds us who we are.’ / ‘And who are we?’ / We heard hoofbeats in the distance. / The Kid appeared at the lip of the gulch then, nose and mouth already covered by a scarf of purple silk. Elzy smilied at me, then removed a checked bandanna from her pocket. / ‘Didn’t you hear?’ she asked. ‘We’re kings.'”

Other slight hangups for me included the brevity of the world building and a glossing over of morality. In the case of the former, small details are scattered throughout the book, leaving the politics of this setting feeling half-finished; we get small hints about the Great Flu and the Independent Townships that formed after America fell and the sheriffs who police them, but it’s bare bones- only enough to understand the logistics of the plot. As for the latter complaint, North delivers here a band of outlaws who are fully willing to kill any man who gets in their way, and there’s very little personal reckoning over this state of affairs. Of course the entire Hole in the Wall Gang has been cast out and persecuted, but it seems there should be a distinction made between recognizing harm from society as a whole and taking individual lives. Especially for a group with prices on their heads who are endeavoring to create a safe haven, I expected some deeper examination into the decision to murder, but instead its taken largely as a matter of course. The whole book, perhaps, could have been served well by an extra 50-100 pages in order to tease things out properly. That I never wanted the book to end probably serves as an indicator that I found it lacking in some ways even while the story engrossed me.

For all my little quibbles, I loved picking this book up every time I had a chance to read, was shocked at some of the twists, and heartbroken over a particular death. Outlawed has great energy. I was invested. I had a good time.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I could see myself potentially bumping this down to 4 in time, as it wasn’t a flawless read, but I was completely hooked all the way through and sad to reach the final page. I’ll absolutely be reading more from this author.

The Echo Wife

Next is Sarah Gailey’s The Echo Wife, which is a February 16 release- I received an eARC via Netgalley and Tor Books in exchange for an honest review. All of my thoughts and reactions come from the advance edition of this book.

This plot follows a renowned woman scientist who learns her husband is having an affair- with a clone he built from his wife’s research, programmed to be docile and accommodating in all of the ways Evelyn is not. At first Evelyn cuts her losses and keeps her distance, but soon the clone has as much reason to hate the man as Evelyn, and the two women bond over an attempt to cover up his murder.

I was under the impression that this book would be a fast-paced, plotty sci-fi, perhaps even a sci-fi thriller, but instead found it to be fairly slow and introspective. Part of what makes it drag is the narration’s tendency to over-explain, pausing each scene to tell the reader outright what each gesture, expression, and comment means, leaving nothing for the reader to decipher or interpret. The careful detailing of minutiae makes it easy to see which direction the book is going at almost every turn, before it gets there. It takes a full quarter of the book for the plot to progress beyond what’s stated directly in the synopsis, and each new piece of information (the affair! the clone! the murder! *gasp*) is presented as a plot twist even though it’s all setup, primarily, for what is in actuality a very character-driven story in which one woman grapples with who she is and who she could have been under other circumstances and who she could never have been at all- as well as an inquiry into that which makes us human.

I mostly agreed with and appreciated the book’s feminist commentary but didn’t feel it pushed any boundaries- that some women desire to reproduce, others do not, and both choices are valid is not new to me, nor is the narrative of a man taking advantage of a smart/successful woman in a quest to secure his own power both personally and professionally, though they’re nice points to see made in mainstream lit and I know there will be other readers newer to the nuances of both who will likely find these themes more exciting than I did.

Ultimately this story just wasn’t quite as punchy and innovative as I expected, though I did enjoy the focus on morality, on personality, on what (if anything) differentiates a human from a highly successful clone. The writing style never managed to win me over, though it’s competent enough and clearly shows that Gailey has put some effort into the science. To be honest most of the scientific details meant nothing to me without much of a background in the field myself, and thus some suspension of disbelief was required, but having them in the story did lend a sense of authenticity to Evelyn’s lab and increase my willingness to follow Gailey through that setting. In the end I’d say this is sci-fi for fans of books like Robin Wasserman’s Mother Daughter Widow Wife and/or Helen Philips’s The Need, both lighter on the actual science and heavier on feminist and woman-centered commentary; I’d recommend it to readers who like attention to detail and no questions left unanswered. Those who already know they like Gailey’s writing will probably fare well here, too.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars. Unfortunately, my expectations from the synopsis got in the way of fully enjoying what is actually presented here, and I suspect that in the end Gailey’s writing style is just not for me. This was my first time reading their work and I won’t rule out an exciting premise in the future convincing me to give them another go, but I don’t plant to read further for now.

Are either of these books on your radar for 2021?

The Literary Elephant

18 thoughts on “cowboys, clones: my first brushes with 2021 lit”

    1. Ah yes, the synopsis sounds SO GOOD but the delivery really didn’t do it proper justice for me. It’s hard to complain about a stylistic choice that seems to be working better for others, but I definitely thought a different approach would’ve been an improvement!

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  1. I wonder if part of the reason so many books about reproduction and a futuristic setting are so popular right now is due to the rise in folks watching and reading The Handmaid’s Tale. I don’t feel like that’s a plot I need to read repetitively myself, though I understand the fear. If a story IS going to take on this issue, I’d rather have it be more realistic. Perhaps woman seeking an abortion in a state like Texas, maybe, and what she goes through to get one.

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    1. I’m sure The Handmaid’s Tale’s recent resurgence of popularity is playing a role, and I agree that when the point is simply to scare readers about a lack of bodily autonomy it can get frustratingly repetitive. In that way I think North’s choice to focus on cowboy heists and character dramas is a good way to include a conversation about barrenness without sabotaging her chance at providing a fun, unique read, even if the message is already familiar to some. Actually there’s a reproductive element to The Echo Wife too, and since that book is much more internal and driven more by its themes than by the more exciting clone angle, the commentary fell flatter for me there. I think you’re right that a more realistic exploration of the current abortion conflict could go far; I know Jodi Picoult had a contemporary book focused on abortion and pro-life crazies just a couple of years back (A Spark of Light, I think), but I haven’t read that one yet and I can’t say whether it’s set in Texas. It might be more like what you’re looking for, though!

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  2. I know we’ve already talked about Outlawed, but reading your review makes me realise just how different it sounds from her previous novel, The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, which I absolutely loved – not necessarily bad different, but Sophie Stark was a very reflective and literary character study, definitely not dramatic or fun!

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    1. I haven’t read Sophie Stark yet to do a direct comparison, but based on the reviews I’ve looked at they do indeed sound like completely different works! I’m always excited to find an author with a great range, and a reflective, literary character study sounds equally to my taste so I’m excited to check it out. I really hope Outlawed will live up for you, that it’s differences from the title you’ve already loved will be fun rather than retractive.

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  3. You do make Outlawed sound fun! I probably would want to see more world building and character perspectives too and I don’t know that I’ll add this to my TBR but I might read it if my library gets it in!

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    1. I hope you’ll like it if you do pick it up someday! I did unfortunately think it could’ve been strengthened considerably by a few changes in the presentation, but it was such a ride nonetheless. I was shocked to find myself literally grinning or groaning about things that were happening, I was so caught up in the momentum!

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    1. That’s great! It’s always nice to hear when I’ve been able to review something I didn’t like as much as I’d hoped in a way that can catch the attention of readers who might have better luck. I hope you’ll enjoy the read! 🙂

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  4. I really enjoyed Outlawed! I do get what you’re saying about the world building, but I kind of felt like perhaps North was being deliberately vague? It felt like she was sort of hesitant to give it a firm time or place in a way that made me think more about the continued relevance of the subject matter.

    I totally agree though – it is such an addictive read. I was a bit hesitant because cowboys aren’t really my thing, but I was low key ready to join The Kid and co by the end.

    I am so interested in your thoughts about The Echo Wife! I feel like its marketing is sort of setting it up as a pacey thriller-type novel, which doesn’t sound at all like what it actually is.

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    1. I’m glad you liked Outlawed, too! 🙂
      I definitely agree that North was probably trying to draw some parallels between the themes of her wild story and real ongoing social issues; it was mostly the history behind the Great Flu and some more specifics on how the townships were formed/governed and how they interacted with one another etc. that I wanted for worldbuilding, to have a little more context about the characters’ lives, the stakes, and the pressures they would be living with. I don’t mind a bit of vagueness at all when it serves to make a point about our own world, but I thought there was a little more room in this case for details around the rules of operation in the world of this story. I’m glad to hear you found it effective as is.

      Same, I’m not big on Westerns or cowboys but would’ve followed the Kid just about anywhere!

      Unfortunately I think The Echo Wife is a case of poor marketing, at least with its synopsis. It certainly makes the book sound like an edge-of-your-seat thrill with lots of twists and turns, but it’s more of a slower, ruminative story. And I’m sure there’s an audience for that too, but the synopsis seems to be pointing a different set of readers toward the book, for some reason.

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      1. That is a really good point about the flu thing especially. I think perhaps my brain shied away from that for obvious reasons, haha. Yes – the connections between the towns would have been worth exploring as well, especially given that ending.

        It’s so weird how publishers do that with marketing sometimes. Ultimately they are only putting a book at a disadvantage, especially when it comes to a genre like thrillers.

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      2. Ah, very understandable to look past anything flu-like in your entertainment these days. I definitely wouldn’t have wanted more medical depth into it either, just the political/cultural context, and a little would’ve gone a long way.

        Yes! Inaccurate marketing really doesn’t seem to benefit anyone in the end- not the readers whose expectations aren’t met, and not the author or publisher whose sales may suffer in light of the disappointed reviews. It’s one of my biggest bookish pet peeves, especially when the book is not inherently bad, just struggling to find its audience!

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  5. I’ve been seeing mixed reviews for Outlawed, but yours provided such a nice idea of what to expect from it! I’m more curious now about this book than when I first heard about it. Also, pity that The Echo Wife wasn’t the thriller you expected! I honestly thought it would be a dark, pace-y thriller, too. Have you read Upright Women by them?

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    1. I’m glad my thoughts on Outlawed helped! It’s definitely not a perfect book but was quite engrossing for me regardless, and I’d love to see more people reading it.
      The blurb for Echo Wife all but screams dark thriller! And then the only tension was related to moral quandries, which just did not fit my expectations at that point. I have not read Upright Women… I might’ve been more interested in it after how much I enjoyed Outlawed but now am not sure whether I would like it after all if it uses the same writing style. (If you’ve read it, do you think I’d have better luck with that one?)

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