The Nightland Express, J.M. Lee (Erewhon 978-1-64566-003-3, $18.95, hc, 368pp) October 2022. Cover by Jeff Langevin.
In J.M. Lee’s The Nightland Express, it is 1860, and Jessamine Murphy and Ben Foley have each answered an advertisement from the Pony Express:
Special Assignment. St Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California. Two Riders Wanted. Young, Skinny, Wiry Fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.
Jessamine needs to get to California and find her father before her sister, seemingly abandoned by the man she loves, gives birth. Ben is running for his life because even though he was recently freed by his father/master’s will, his half-brother is determined to haul him back to the plantation and keep him enslaved. To get the job, Jessamine becomes Jesse, an identity she has secretly longed for her entire life. Meanwhile, Ben shaves off his hair and embraces his mixed race light skin, pretending to be white, an identity he loathes, as it ties him to his former owner/father. He has no choice, though, because he needs the job to escape his vengeful half brother. Both Ben and Jesse manage to beat the competition and win the two coveted slots on the new Nightland Express. That’s when they learn the position is nothing like the Pony Express they know, nor is their cargo a simple packet of letters.
The Nightland Express moves at a rapid pace as Lee chronicles Jesse and Ben’s adventures following the map west with a young girl named Mock as their ‘‘package’’ on horses that are strangely capable of covering hundreds of miles a day. It’s not long before they begin to suspect that Mock is not who she appears to be and the express trail itself is far from a traditional route. Soon they find themselves in the midst of a battle involving the fae, where their choices made in the heat of the moment prove more devastating than either of them could have realized.
First off, Jesse and Ben are excellent characters! In a realistic fashion, they struggle to carry the burdens of their separate secrets as they try to figure out what in the world their mission might actually be. While Jesse must dress and act as a teen boy in order to keep her position, which makes for a few tricky moments, Ben is under a greater pressure as his horrible brother pursues him across the country. Meanwhile, Mock seems to be one thing (a chatty little girl), but all too often acts like something else (a very unknown something else). The fae are exactly as readers would expect: strange, compelling, terrifying, and absurdly powerful. One of them eats a bad guy. (He totally deserves it.)
There is one death in the book that does merit a spoiler: Jesse’s horse. It’s tragic and sad and pretty demoralizing. (Think of Artax in the swamp of sadness, only there is no happy ending here.) This is the part where the reader learns that some of the fae can be horrible. Consider yourself warned.
Lee presents a very nuanced version of the faerie world in The Nightland Express, as well as a thoughtful consideration of life in 1860 America. He doesn’t shy away from the realities for Black people, (free or not), nor single women like Jesse and her sister (stuck trying to find their father, as they can’t own property on their own). It’s a difficult world the heroes are trying to navigate, and yet they have no idea how complex it is. The exciting narrative, fueled by a perceptive and sharply written plot, makes this novel a surefire winner for teens.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the December 2022 issue of Locus.
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