Reviewed by Nick Rees Gardner
An action-packed Western, Kendall Roberts’ Gunslingers is a story of love and loss that wonders how far a person will go to mete out justice in a corrupt world.
Like any novel in the Western canon, Kendall Roberts’ Gunslingers is a story about cowboys in the wild plains of the West defining their own personal brand of justice in a dangerous world. Of course Gunslingers features shoot-outs and bar brawls, posses, and long rides through the desert, but Roberts’ take on the Western goes beyond the thrill of dead-eye gunmen and near escapes.
In the thick of the fray, his characters question corrupt politics, manifest destiny, and the state of the Native American tribes who were forced off their land. With deft prose, Roberts paints a fictional landscape spotted with fictional towns that comment on traditional views of the American Frontier while also showing its natural beauty.
On the verge of adulthood, Will and Finn are ready to head out on their first cattle drive when Governor Hogg’s debt collectors barge into their lives, forcing them to flee their home.
David McPhail, a family friend and former member of the prestigious Rangers, saves the young men from Hogg’s agents and trains them as gunslingers, imbuing them with his personal brand of justice. With McPhail at the lead, the trio continues on a path of vengeance on Hogg and his men, leaving a trail of bodies in their wake. They meet up with crackshot Janie De Casas, the angry daughter of one of Hogg’s agents, and together the four continue to ransack the governor’s revenue through a series of hold-ups and raids across the Western Territories.
Gunslingers is riveting and action-packed, but also a deeply moving coming-of-age drama as the cousins fall in and out of love and learn that everything they claim in life can be, in an instant, snatched away. Roberts depicts showdowns with expert pacing and just enough bloodshed as to be realistic, not gratuitous, and he balances these altercations with scenes of personal growth, such as when, during a brief respite with a local tribe, Finn befriends Bidziil over one-too-many drinks.
Roberts confronts the reader with male characters torn between the machismo that’s expected of them and tenderness they feel toward each other. The cousins, Will and Finn, care deeply about one another and the trauma of the Wild West only draws them closer together.
As a revenge narrative set in the age of Manifest Destiny and the gold rush, the plot of Gunslingers is one that would appeal to many fans of traditional Westerns, but the plot is unexpected, filled with twists and added depth. The gunslingers pass through towns with names like Diligence, Humility, Benevolence, and Absolution, metaphorically loaded titles that somewhat humorously comment on the corruption of the money-hungry governments in charge. In this way, Gunslingers questions the morality of governing bodies and also the personal ethics of the gunslingers themselves. As they ransack towns with McPhail, Will and Finn must decide whether their revenge is worth the bloodshed or if their form of justice is accomplishing anything at all.
With Gunslingers, Kendall Roberts presents a Western fit for the morality of the 21st century. The novel features the careful discussion of the displacement of indigenous people, racism, sexism, violence, and greed, but it also contains the nostalgia of open spaces and the sense of individual justice that make a good Western novel resonate. Whether it is the morally complex characters, the action-packed gunfights, or the page-turning escapes, Gunslingers will keep you riveted.
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