*I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review*
Westerns have long enjoyed a hallowed place in historical fiction and they are enjoying a resurgence in literary circles in recent years. I picked up The Dust and the Dark Places knowing very little about the setting or the author, but I only needed to read a few pages to know the author had put a great deal of research and thought into the book.
Set in the late 1800s, the story takes place in a time when lawlessness still pervaded the Mountain West and makes use of generous flashbacks to provide the backstory for the protagonist, Benjamin of Hope Springs. He spends most of his early childhood fantasizing about life outside his small town and spends his down-time reading dime novels, when he isn’t getting into trouble with his friends of course. His step-mother and his father are both alcoholic and abusive so Benjamin’s desire to escape is both understandable and natural.
As it turns out, his father is bitten with the same bug and stirs up a great deal of trouble in the next town over when he goes on a shameful bender. Unfortunately for Benjamin, trouble follows his father back home and a group of outlaws decide to make an example out of him. Benjamin and his brother are soon dragged into the mix, and the ensuing violence alters the course of Benjamin’s life. In a matter of minutes, he loses the one person he always looked up to, and he is forced to abandon almost everything he knows.
Owing to his age, the outlaws decide to spare him, but the small mercy counts for little with Benjamin. He dedicates himself to seeking revenge and spends years hunting down the outlaws who destroyed his childhood. In the interests of not giving away too much of the story, I won’t get into much more of the plot but I think what I like most about the story isn’t the plot so much as the author’s dedication to craft. The prose is both fluid and engaging, and the research is top-notch.
Whether Gracey is describing the specific mechanisms of a rifle or the arid setting, it’s abundantly clear The Dust and the Dark Places is the product of impressive scholarship. When I read up on the author, I wasn’t surprised to learn he had a background in law enforcement but I was very surprised to learn he lives in the UK. If anything, it makes me respect his research all the more. Both the language and the details feel authentic to the time and place, and I think congratulations are very much in order. The Dust and the Dark Places is not for everyone–a scene involving a whipped horse and a restrained prisoner is particularly graphic–but readers who enjoy Westerns will find much to enjoy in this story. It is not a stand-alone novel by any stretch of the imagination but considering the quality of the writing, I imagine most readers will be quite willing to pick up the next installment.