This mysterious, experimental sci fi western is readable but ultimately a bit opaque…
Book: Frontier by Grace Curtis
Publication date: 9th March 2023
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Hodder Books. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: violence, injury, and death; mentions of cannibalism; discussion of religion; climate-related post-apocalypse.
Saints and preachers, librarians and horse thieves, lawmakers and lawbreakers, and a crash-surviving spaceborn vagrant searching for her lover on a scarred Earth.
Earth, the distant future: climate change has reduced our verdant home into a hard-scrabble wasteland. Saints and sinners, lawmakers and sheriffs, travellers and gunslingers and horse thieves abound. People are as diverse and divided as they’ve ever been – except in their shared suspicions when a stranger comes to town.
One night a ship falls from the sky, bringing the planet’s first visitor in three hundred years. She’s armed, she’s scared… and she’s looking for someone.
Love, loss, and gunslinging in this dazzling debut novel by Grace Curtis. For fans of Sam J. Miller, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Becky Chambers, Frontier is a heartfelt queer romance in a high noon standoff with our planet’s uncertian future, full of thrills, a love story, and laser guns.
This is going to be a difficult book to review, because I don’t really have anything extremely good or bad to say about it. On the surface, it’s a very readable story of a strange woman who crash-lands on and journeys across a dying, part-Western part-post-apocalyptic Earth that rejects space travel and outsiders. This character, who doesn’t get a name until the very end of the book, drifts through various communities and we get both her viewpoint and those of some of the people she meets, all of whom are very interesting, with little glimpses of their lives in this strange, dusty future. There are some interesting peeks at the Earth’s new religion, both familiar and unsettling, and some fun moments with a roguish companion and a plucky librarian, but it feels very drifty, and never quite coalesces into a fully formed, fulfilling plot.
It’s sort of a mix between Dreamsnake and Fallout in terms of setting – a dry and sparsely populated Earth with a huge wealth gap that means some eke out a living and some live in high-tech high-rises. I notice there’s a comparison to Becky Chambers in the blurb, and I think that while her sci-fi books spring to mind at first, the slow pace and meandering tidbits of worldbuilding are more akin to her Monk and Robot novellas. But where Chambers is masterful both at giving you enough crumbs to make connections, and at forging a strong emotional connection to every character, in Frontier I was mostly really confused about what was happening and why I was supposed to mind. The Stranger is looking for her lost love, but there’s no real impetus to her search. She tells the people she meets that it’s urgent, but I never understood why, or what the stakes were. It’s a dreamscape of a book – an interesting one, don’t get me wrong, but not one I fully connected with. It didn’t leave me feeling hopeful, or philosophical, or warmed, in the way a Becky Chambers book does.
Frontier is only a short book, at under 250 pages, and I honestly wish it had been slightly longer if that would mean we got more plot, and slightly shorter if it was just going to be an atmospheric glimpse of future kind of thing. I certainly didn’t feel it did enough with the romance – although it is a largely positive sapphic one – or the Stranger to warrant the blurb focusing on them! Instead, I’d recommend going into this expecting some interesting looks at society on a post-nature Earth with a very loosely-connected throughline. Interesting, but not quite satisfying, I think. Three out of five cats.