Genres: Queer Protagonists
Representation: Sapphic MC, F/F
PoV: 1st-person, past-tense
Published on: 20th June 2023
"A subversive take on Western fiction: a deftly told, absorbing coming-of-age story about a young woman's life in a Dodge City brothel, and one of the most heartfelt and thrilling books I've read in ages." --Lauren Wilkinson, author of American Spy
A vibrant and cinematic feminist debut set in the American West about a scrappy, stubborn orphan seeking a better life, who finds friendship and security working in a brothel, before realizing her true calling as a revenge-seeking gunslinger.
It's the spring of 1877 and sixteen-year-old Bridget is already disillusioned. She's exhausted from caring for her ne'er-do-well alcoholic father, but when he's killed by a snakebite as they cross the Kansas prairie, she knows she has only her wits to keep her alive. She arrives penniless in Dodge City, and, thanks to the allure of her bright red hair and country-girl beauty, is soon recruited to work at the Buffalo Queen, the only brothel in town run by women. Bridget takes to brothel life, appreciating the good food, good pay, and good friendships she forms with her fellow sporting women.
Then Spartan Lee, the most legendary (and only) female gunfighter in the region, rides into town, and Bridget falls in love. Hard. Before long, though, a series of shocking double-crosses shatter the Buffalo Queen's tenuous peace and safety. Crushed by the devastating consequences of her actions and desperate for vengeance and autonomy, Bridget resolves to claim her own destiny.
A thoroughly modern reimagining of the Western genre, Lucky Red is a masterfully crafted, propulsive tale of adventure, loyalty, desire, and love.
I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
~make your own luck
~but keep the sheriff happy
~first loves ain’t gotta be forever
~twisty as a straight-up prairie twister
~except definitely not straight
Le gasp! A book that isn’t SFF!!! Yes, folx, it happens. Rarely, I grant you. But it does happen that I occasionally read non-SFF books, and sometimes I even review them!
Like this one. Because wow, people: Lucky Red is so freaking good!
And it’s an interesting premise, sure, but what makes it shine is Bridget’s incredible voice – aka, Cravens’ genuinely marvellous prose. Bridget comes alive on the page from the very first line, and she is hard not to love: wickedly (and usually unintentionally) funny, fierce, defiant, stubborn as hell, with a surprisingly soft centre beneath the grit. Despite all she goes through, she retains a streak of frustrating but appealing naïveté that makes you want to shake her and hug her tight. She’s such a real person, and damn if her perspective on the world isn’t sharp and clear, coming from an angle so alien to my own soft life that her reflections on Life, the Universe, and Everything are both eye-openingly incisive and, often, laugh-out-loud brilliant;
“You know, you think you know everything, but all you got is book learning, and that ain’t all there is to know. You think you’re smart but you’re just–world-stupid!”
I mean – world-stupid! That’s a term I’ve been looking for for most of my life, and Cravens just calligraphs it onto the page, just like that.
I think it’s that wordcraft that makes Lucky Red stand out from the crowd, even more than all its other great aspects (we’ll get to those in a minute, I promise!) Bridget is – she’s poor and uneducated and spends most of the book as a sex-worker, and that means her voice isn’t the kind of lush and decadent prose that I usually prefer (it’s quite a contrast to Kushiel’s Dart, for example, which I’m nearly finished rereading).
But there is nonetheless an unpretty but piercing poetry to Cravens’ prose; an almost shocking insightfulness in Bridget’s character, a way of seeing the world that rapidly becomes addictive.
the stars picked themselves out one by one against the woolly blackness like a mourning dress, half-sewn, with silver pins still tucked into the seams.
See? No describing the stars as diamonds; the night sky is not a piece of velvet. The image isn’t beautiful in the way we’re taught to expect, the way we’re used to. Instead, it’s…if I say mundane, I don’t mean boring, I mean down-to-earth and relatable, homey, earthy, something that feels like it comes out of a normal person’s life rather than a fairytale of princesses and treasure chests. And that makes it hit differently. It’s still a wonderful line, a clever way to describe the night sky, an image we haven’t seen used a thousand times before – but it also feels like something we can touch in a way diamond-stars are not. It feels real in a way I can’t quite put into words.
rage scrabbled in my chest like a pack of wolves all caught in one trap, biting each other’s legs and howling in each other’s faces.
Craven’s prose hits like a gut-punch because it perfectly puts into words things and thoughts and moments that you the reader have experienced too. There are no wasted words, and each one grabs you by the throat – and then pries between your ribs to snatch your heart out, too, just for good measure.
unlike the rope-twist I had grown accustomed to, now my chest was full of violin strings, each one carefully tuned to just the right pitch so that when next the fiddler took up her bow I would ring out clear and bittersweet to fill the room with music.
Well, what about the story? The story is also great! I don’t think Lucky Red would burn as brightly as it does if another author had written it – it’s Craven’s wordcraft and the life she breathed into Bridget that turns a great story into a freaking excellent book – but I loved how unconventional the actual plot was. By which I mean; if you’ve read (or watched, or heard, or whatever medium you prefer to use) a lot of stories, you get a sense of the patterns they tend to follow. The templates, let’s call them. And so I reflexively expected Lucky Red to go one way – and it did not.
And then it did not again.
And after that I did my best to stop expecting things, I really did, but I couldn’t help it and IT WENT ON TAKING ME BY SURPRISE AT EVERY TURN! Craven spun me dizzy with all the twists I didn’t see coming, and I loved every minute of it.
Every now and then, somebody says something about you that’s so true you just can’t do a thing about it.
One example of the unexpected I simply have to talk about a little bit, so I’m going to put it under a spoiler tag – it’s not a major spoiler, but, you know, I will not judge you for skipping over it! View Spoiler »
A smarter reviewer than myself – and one with more spoons – would go into all the ways in which this is so fiercely a feminist novel, from the woman-owned and -run brothel, to depicting all too accurately how men tend to think of women when sex is involved (especially when it’s paid for), to all the reasons a happy sex worker has to reject a conventional life as wife-and-homemaker. I do not have the spoons, but allow me to assure that those themes are very much present, and they’re on-point and merciless and cut like glass. *chef’s kiss*
And then there’s the whole queer awakening aspect of Lucky Red, which I had no expectations about at all because I had no idea what that might look like in a Wild West setting. But yet again, I loved how Craven handled it, how it was simultaneously a huge deal and a tiny one, and so completely confusing for poor Bridget! You can’t help but empathise and wince and cheer and cringe and laugh, not at her but for her.
(Well. A little bit at her.)
Sallie laughed, and I felt a twist of what I now know was gut-level envy, though at the time I thought I was just hungry.
This is not, at all, a book I would have predicted myself enjoying – Wild West? Plucky orphans? A town literally called Dodge? Um. AND YET. I flew through this, only taking breaks to read the best bits out loud to my hubby, and look, the blurb is kind of appallingly misleading – Bridget’s wish to be a gunslinger is the tiniest part of this book, not a major plotline at all – but the truth of it is that Lucky Red is simply awesome. It’s fun, it’s fast, it’s much smarter than it lets you think it is, and Bridget is a main character I would happily follow through an entire series. I suspect it’s intended as a standalone, but if Craven ever comes back to it–
Who am I kidding; whatever Craven writes next, I’ll be pouncing on it!
And you can pounce on Lucky Red next week; it’s out this coming Tuesday!