I’m fully on board for any Western story with magical elements—the wildness and expansiveness of the American West in the 19th Century mixed with the supernatural or fantastical opens up exciting possibilities for storytelling. The combination also not only allows for the creation of a vivid world, but also allows the author (and the reader) to explore themes of change (violent and otherwise), systemic injustices, and personal self-discovery, all of which are often spiced up with a touch of adventure.
The Nightland Express by J.M. Lee checks all of these boxes, and is a must-read for anyone who loves the blend of these two genres.
Lee’s story takes place in a version of 1860 America and follows Jesse and Ben, two youths who desperately want to join the Pony Express for their own private reasons. To that end, they find themselves competing to be one of the “young, wiry fellows not over eighteen” who know how to ride a horse and are willing to risk death daily.
The two successfully win the posting, but it turns out that the job isn’t for the Pony Express and the well-known Overland route. It is, instead, for the secretive Nightland Express, a secret organization whose waystations aren’t on any maps. Even worse from Jesse’s and Ben’s points of view, the two have to work together.
Both Jesse and Ben have secrets: Ben is a runaway enslaved person who is able to pass as white because his father was the owner of the plantation where he was born; Jesse, who was designated female at birth and raised as such, is also “disguised” as a boy and doesn’t want anyone to know him as anything different. And while the two don’t enjoy working together at first, the trials of crossing the country via horseback with a package that turns out to be a fae called Mock, cause them to rely on each other more than either of them would initially like.
The story goes on from there, with Jesse and Ben both facing people from their past and slowly uncovering what their so-called delivery across the country is actually meant for. Along the way, they encounter fae both indigenous to the land as well as those who came to it with the people who sailed across the sea. Ben and Jesse also begin to identify their true selves and have journeys toward self-discovery, just like all good coming-of-age tales do. And while some of the plot points don’t hold up under strict scrutiny, the overarching story and the struggles of the two main characters are just compelling enough to forgive the occasional head-scratching plot point.
And like many good stories, The Nightland Express uses the setup of its fictional world as well as the stakes facing the characters to touch on overarching themes, such as identity, the evils of systemic racism, and many others. These are serious topics, but Lee makes sure that the story we hear via Jesse and Ben remains hopeful.
Take, for example, how the novel grapples with the white savior issue, a valid critique of the protagonists of many books from the past (and the present, unfortunately). During the story, Jesse—who is white—puts his foot in his mouth more than once before he realizes that the privilege he had growing up was something that Ben and others in the novel never had. Jesse has this realization and strives to be better, but his redemption doesn’t make him the one to rescue the book’s people of color.
Lee outlines Jesse’s realization of this in great detail. “The worst was knowing she wasn’t the hero,” Jesse thinks at one point in the novel (the book is told in the third person, and when told from Jesse’s point of view, the character uses both him and her pronouns). “She wanted to be the savior, beating back an awful outside evil. Coming to the rescue of others beset by a villain. Rejecting slavery and supporting abolition. Trying desperately to prove […] that she was not like other white people […] What had Ben said? Not to tell him it was noon when he’d been awake since dawn? And now it was nearly midnight. In the end, the only thing she could do was try to stop the damage she’d done.”
Jesse does so as best he can, and the last third of The Nightland Express sees him and Ben travel between the mortal realm and the more magical one that is overlayed over the reality they grew up in. There’s a growing rift between these two realms, and Jesse and Ben are the key to preventing or causing said rift. And to prevent it, the two must come to trust each other, something that doesn’t come naturally to either of them.
Without getting too deep into spoiler territory, the ending sees both Ben and Jesse embrace who they are. Even if who they are is different from what they thought at the beginning of the book. Even if embracing who they are means they must leave certain parts of themselves behind.
Overall, the story is a fast-paced read that also explores themes and issues that are still resonant and relevant today. If you’re into complex and compelling coming-of-age stories, tales set in the Wild West with a tinge of magic, and/or a fast-paced read full of fae and adventure, then The Nightland Express is worth a read.
The Nightland Express is published by Erewhon Books.
Vanessa Armstrong is a writer with bylines at The LA Times, SYFY WIRE, StarTrek.com and other publications. She lives in Los Angeles with her dog Penny and her husband Jon, and she loves books more than most things. You can find more of her work on her website or follow her on Twitter @vfarmstrong.