It is always hard when an author you typically love writes a book that you don't really love. I've read every single book N.D. Wilson has written and usually I put them down full of love and ready to gush. My feelings about his latest work, the first in his new Outlaws of Time trilogy, are far more complicated and my reaction mixed. The Legend of Sam Miracle has some excellent parts, but there are some elements that made me uncomfortable.
Sam Miracle is confused. The life he leads at his home for boys is simple. He works. He learns. He relaxes with his friends. But there are moments when he is in his head living lives of adventure and danger. Unlike most people's daydreams, Sam's do not have happy endings. He dies in the end every time. But he still loves the dreams even if they sometimes cause him to wander off into danger unknown because in them is arms don't hurt and they bend as they are supposed to. In his real life they are useless, damaged beyond help in a horrible accident. When a new doctor shows up at the ranch to take a look at Sam, the world as Sam knows it is flipped inside out. The doctor is not a doctor, but an outlaw sent through time to track Sam down and kill him. Sam finds himself torn out of a time he thought was his own and discovering that his dreams aren't dreams, but memories. And he has one last chance to change the end of his story.
The world and plot of The Legend of Same Miracle is ambitious. These two elements of the story work really well. Wilson's imagery brings the American west to vivid life: the heat, the harsh sun, the dryness, the sand. This is a story of outlaws and cowboys very much steeped in the mythology of the old west. There is a lot of adventure, peril, and heroics. The villains are the sort who have no trouble torturing and killing young people. They've done it numerous times and pulled time apart to do it again. This gives the sense of peril in the book the realistic edge I expect from Wilson. His fantasies have teeth, and I've always appreciated that. Sam keeps getting another chance to get things right even after dying multiple times. The mechanics of this and the time travel are vaguely alluded to, but it isn't necessary to understand how it works to know that it does. The plot bounces between the linear story of Sam discovering (again) who he is and going about this attempt to make his story right and the flashbacks to his past lives. Once the adventure starts the reader also gets to see what the main villain is up to with some moments showing what Sam's sister Millie is enduring. The book is difficult to put down, and it has Wilson's signature descriptive prose that hooks the reader and holds them to the end. It also has quite a bit of humor. (The acronym for Sam's home is SADDYR and there are delightful motivational phrases to go with each letter posted on the wall.) Thematically the book is what I've come to expect from Wilson as well. There are a great many of lines that are quotable and had me nodding and smiling.
The problems I have are with the characterization. It is hard to feel connected to Sam because he is so confused and doesn't really know who he is for much of the novel. He is clueless and incompetent, which is completely understandable given everything he goes through. However the turn around on that is far too abrupt. This is partly due to how his arms are "fixed", but he has a major change in attitude too. It's like the first half of the book and the second half of the book have two entirely different main characters, and it's not clear how or when they were switched out.
My biggest problem with the characterization is with the other major characters. Three important people in Sam's journey are members of the Navajo nation. I know Wilson's intentions here came from a genuine place. He wrote about it here. The end result left me uncomfortable though. All three characters are very much the magical Native American. Their sole purpose in the narrative is to drive the story of the white hero. One of them sacrifices everything for him. These characters were problematic on several levels. It takes an actual Native hero away from the work with his actual people and nation and focuses his attention on this random white kid. The way they talked about communing with animals and had this strange magic made me squirm. It felt very much like Disney's Pocahontas-a white person's cobbled idea of what Native Americans are.
The Native characters made me uncomfortable. The female characters made me angry. One reason I have never really liked westerns is that the women in them either tend to be agentless bodies to be raped/tortured/murdered to advance the male protagonist's story or evil manipulators working for the baddy. Sam's sister is the former. And she's had to endure it a thousand times over. She has a brief moment of agency when she snarks the villain, but she still needs to be rescued at the end and the reader is left with no sense of who she is as a person outside of who she is to Sam. His motivation. (Blech.) The main female character is Glory. She is the daughter of Sam's foster parents, and for plot reasons gets swept up into the story. She has a little more agency than Millie. She actually chooses to accompany Sam and help him. It was a heroic thought. She does help in saving his life. Then she spends the rest of the book as his secretary (for all intents and purposes). Oh, and she also needs to be rescued by him. More than once. Again, I ended the book with no real sense of who she was apart from her role in Sam's life. The only other female character in the book is evil. This made me even more angry because I expect better of Wilson. I can't believe this is the same author who wrote Henrietta, Antigone, Diana, and Arachne. I KNOW HE CAN DO BETTER.
Will I read the second book? Yes, I will because Wilson's past seven novels have earned my trust. I'm willing to stick around to see how he deals with some of this later on. It's a book that I can't wholeheartedly recommend on its own merits though. And that makes me sad.
I read an ARC made available by the publisher, Katherine Tegen Books, via Edelweiss. The Legend of Sam Miracle is on sale April 19th.