Summary: Cowboys and gunslingers meet wizards in this high fantasy series inspired by the Old West. Silas Vendine is a mage and bounty hunter, on the hunt for renegade mages. He’s also a freedom fighter, sworn to protect the non-magical people of the Wildings from ambitious mages both lawless and lawful. It’s a dangerous life and Silas knows it, but when he comes to the town of Bitterbush Springs, he finds more danger and excitement than he bargained for…
In Bitterbush Springs on the trail of a dangerous rogue mage, Silas meets Lainie Banfrey, a young woman both drawn to and terrified of her own developing magical powers. Though Lainie has been taught all her life to hate and fear wizards, she and Silas team up to stop the renegade who has brought her hometown to the brink of open warfare. The hunt takes them deep beneath forbidden lands held by the hostile A’ayimat people, where only Silas’s skills and Lainie’s untamed, untrained power can save them from the rogue mage and the dark magic he has loosed into the world.
Review: Westerns are really hit-or-miss for me. I don’t have a spectacular amount of interest in them as a genre or subgenre, though I do admit that the setting can hold some appeal for certain types of stories. I wouldn’t say that Beneath the Canyons is a story that can only be told with a wild west setting, since it has many elements that appear in dozens of other stories, but it wasn’t incongruous. It fit, it wasn’t jarring, and I can’t say that I minded it in this case. The story overrode the setting, so to speak.
The story uses the alternating viewpoints of Silas — a bounty hunter and mage come to investigate reports of a rogue mage and bring them to justice — and Lainie — a girl who lives and works on a ranch in the Wildings, hiding her own magic from the fearful and superstitious townsfolk. Strange things have been happening in the town of Bitterbush Springs, something to do with the wealthy man Carden, and both Silas and Lainie get mixed up in events that take them into uncharted territory.
Being a setting based very much off old tales of the wild west, the world in Beneath the Canyons is very familiar. There’s civilized country, there’s the frontier where men and women tough it out to get by, the whole shebang. Which is great if that’s the kind of setting that really appeals to you. For my part, though, some of the worldbuilding seemed lackluster, and like it was the same old building with just a new coat of paint on the outside. The world’s religion might be pantheistic instead of monotheistic, but society still plays by the Judeo-Christian societal rules we’re used to thinking of: no sex until marriage (unless you’re one of those women), women are subservient to men, men wear pants and women wear skirts/dresses, and so on. It wouldn’t have taken much to mix things up a bit, and it would have added something to the story, something to distinguish it and make it stand out.
And I completely understand that mixing it up probably wasn’t what the author was going for. For people who are really into this kind of setting, they like it as it is, with all the bells and whistles that typically come along with it. It’s part of the genre. I get that. This is purely a matter of personal taste. It was nothing I hadn’t seen before, and not in a genre I particularly have a thing for, and so all those bells and whistles just didn’t do it for me. It felt uninspired in that regard.
I was of two minds when it came to the whole “science/magic” dichotomy. On one hand, it’s a parallel of the science/religion controversy that some people face. On the other hand, both aspects of that are based on an utterly flawed idea of what science actually is. In Beneath the Canyons, science is used as a shorthand for certain kinds of technology. Sewing machines, things powered by electricity, etc. People who use magic eschew ‘science,’ and vice versa, each side believing the other to be inferior. Really, though, if magic has quantifiable results, it can be called a science. And not all technology is anathema, or else humans would still be living in caves and eating whatever they could shovel into their mouths instead of having axes and saws to cut wood and build houses, stoves to cook food, looms to weave cloth for clothes and blankets, and so on. Call it a pet peeve of mine, but it bothers me when people use science and technology like the two terms are completely interchangeable, and then ignore so many things that involve technology we take for granted because it’s been around for so long.
Whether this was intentional — for instance, if it was meant to show that people generally dislike what they don’t understand and often don’t use the correct terms for things — or if it was a mistake on the part of the author, I can’t really say.
The bulk of the story revolves around trying to uncover the mystery of the ore that Carden wants miners to dig up, that he’s paying them a small fortune for. Why does he want it so badly? Is the ore related to the reports of spooky things happening at night around Bitterbush Springs? And what of the A’ayimat, the blue-skinned people who live in forbidden land beyond the town’s boundaries? The story unfolds at an even pace, and Halland’s writing is smooth and uncomplicated, making the story feel quick and easy to digest. There’s some action, but most of the story is mystery rather than brawls in the saloon or shoot-outs at the corral.
From the first couple of chapters it’s pretty clear that the intended romance is between Silas and Lainie, and to be honest, I really couldn’t feel it. I can see her being attracted to him, since he’s a stranger from far away and there’s always that appeal, plus he discovers her secret magic, so he’s in close confidence, but beyond that, what develops throughout the story is more akin to a friendship than a romance. They don’t see much of each other until closer to the end, when the plot gets hairy and people are in danger, and then Silas pulls the, “I think I loved you the moment I met you,” and I didn’t see anything there beyond brief infatuation at best.
When all is said and done, Beneath the Canyons wasn’t a bad novel, but it wasn’t anything great either. The story itself was interesting even if the setting didn’t do much for me, and though I had my other issues with it, it’s definitely on par with numerous other books I’ve read in my life. I may not go back and read it again, but I don’t regret reading it now. If Westerns and fantasy trip the right triggers for you, then Halland’s novel will probably entertain; don’t let me sway you away just because it wasn’t really my thing.