Book review: Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey

Futuristic westerns in a dystopian future are a dime a dozen, and this one does not stand out.  The novella is very expertly written and provides for some pleasant reading, but wastes its potential for worldbuilding and character development and brings very little new to the table.  Still, it leaves a tantalizing glimpse into a world I’d like to read more about.

After Esther witnesses her best friend and lover hanged for harboring unauthorized literature, she runs away from her father and potential arranged marriage, and hides in a wagon belonging to librarians who are passing through.  Librarians are treated as a nigh religious order that distributes approved literature along the frontier, in a near future American great plains where people reverted to a Wild West culture.  With that culture comes a strict moral code, which would not abide any deviation from social norms.  The librarians help to preserve the code by offering only media that had passed through the hands of censors.

Esther, being a lesbian, would rather live the monastic life of librarians than marry a man.  To her great surprise, however, once she is discovered she finds out that none of the librarians in the caravan is straight.  They reluctantly agree to take her on, until they reach the relative safety of Utah.  Along the way, they are joined by three more women, but an ambush by a posse of lawmen reveals that one of the new women is a wanted assassin.  Dispatching of the ambushers and then of another group of men guarding the border, the librarians break into Utah.  Esther learns that the librarians are actually subverting the society with forbidden literature, and in rare cases they assassinate key government people.  She is accepted as an assistant, and the book ends with her and her new girlfriend taking over the caravan for future adventures.

The most interesting and frustrating thing about this book is the setting.  On one hand, we have an amalgamation of Hunger Games, The Handmaid’s Tale, a western and visuals from fantasy literature and video games.  On the other, the glimpses are very short and shallow.  We don’t know why the US is in perpetual war, why all resources are so scarce or why the Great Plains turned into a desert.  Was there climate change?  Or a natural disaster?  The reader is also left in dark about how the societal changes came to pass.  There are enough books about dystopian puritanical America to fill a truck, but unlike most of them, this novella doesn’t touch on any explanations.  Then there is the entire idea of a resistance.  The librarians’ methods of fighting and how effective they are is completely unknown, and their only leader that is mentioned remains an enigma.  We don’t know of their history, motives or ultimate goals.  Are they trying to overthrow the government?  Carve out a safe heaven for refugees?  Is Utah, where they are based, threatened by the rest of the US?  All conflicts in the book are handled the same way: as a given fact, not to worry about.

Speaking of the librarians, my biggest gripe about the book is how overpowered they seem.  They defeat two attacks by professional killers with only a single injury.  The author actually brushes away most of the combat and focuses on Esther, who fares much better than the scared domesticated girl she actually is.  This takes away any tension the book would otherwise have held.  Not for a second did I fear for the protagonist or any of her friends.

An unexpected benefit of the lack of tension was that this novella reads as a pleasant travelogue.  The characters may have had a few difficulties, but they could be brushed aside with a chuckle.  They traveled through a desolate wasteland, which the author described in precious few places, but most importantly they had fun on their road trip.  In this regard, the book wasn’t all that bad.  Coupled with very professional and polished writing, if one approached this novella as a diary of travel in a strange country, he or she would be pleased with the title.

For fans of speculative fiction, however, this title has precious little to offer.  It’s full of wasted potential, as if the author was afraid to make more forceful choices, such as focusing on one element of the worldbuilding and exploring it in depth.  Making the adventure more dramatic would have helped as well.  As it stands, this is a perfectly passable short book with a perfectly unremarkable content.

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