The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne by Jonathan Stroud
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|The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne by Jonathan Stroud|
|Reviewer: Alex Mitchell|
|Summary: Jonathan Stroud makes a spirited attempt to tell a Wild West-themed story in a post-apocalyptic Britain, featuring two well-written teen protagonists and occasional touches of dark humour.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Maybe|
|Pages: 400||Date: April 2021|
|Publisher: Walker Books|
|External links: Author's website|
Scarlett McCain is an outlaw, rejecting the draconian conformity of the Surviving Towns and Faith Houses to wander the wildlands between the Seven Kingdoms of Britain, robbing banks and shooting other outlaws to keep herself alive. But then she meets Albert Browne, a dark boy with dark powers and a darker past. With mysterious militiamen hunting them down, they plan to flee to the mythical Free Isles of the London Lagoon. Together, they must brave man-eating wildlife, the cannibalistic Tainted and all the horrors of post-apocalyptic society to reach the Free Isles, but will they be any more accepted there than they are in the rest of Britain?
The story is told from the point of view of the two titular characters, who honestly make the story that bit more enjoyable. The first of these is Scarlett McCain, an outlaw and bank robber who wonders the wilds of Wessex and Mercia with her trusty six-shooter. She is a deeply hardened, cynical and snide person, to the point that her non-reactions to the cruelties of the world border on black comedy at times. She does also have some depth, she meditates every morning to help centre herself, and carries a cuss-box around her neck which she puts a coin in the box every time she swears (although her swearing is pretty mild compared to other YA books). Then she meets Albert Browne, a dark-haired boy with a dark past and incredibly dark powers. In most YA novels, you'd expect a character described the way Albert is to be someone who broods broodingly while staring off into the middle distance that the heroine nevertheless falls head-over-heels in love with despite having less personality than a plank of wood. But no, personality-wise Albert is totally the opposite; he's energetic, cheerful, polite and has a strong desire to see the world, which is really refreshing. His naivete clashes quite strongly with Scarlett's world-weary cynicism and provides some quite amusing back-and-forth exchanges, which is a welcome addition to what is otherwise a pretty bleak book. Overall, they're both well-written protagonists and really made the story for me.
One of the more interesting aspects of the book is how Albert's powers are explored. He is capable of reading minds and can also look out of other people's eyes, not only what they see but also how they perceive the world, which is quite an interesting twist on an otherwise fairly cliched power. For example, when Albert is seen by a security guard, he looks more suspicious because that's the guard's perception of him. Also, later on in the book, when more people find out about his power, they see him as being more deformed and monstrous. He also has the power of telekinesis, although it is more closely tied to his emotions (hence its name 'The Fear'), which he has very little control over it and is constantly in danger of 'maxing out'. The staff at Stonemoor are able to contain his powers via the use of metal bands around his head, which is absolutely torturous for him. While these powers are nothing new, the way the author uses them more than makes up for it.
The setting attempts to portray a post-apocalyptic Britain with a kind of Wild West flavour and it sort of works, but it's not perfect. Britain has been split into seven different kingdoms, although most of the action takes place in Gloucestershire, around the towns of Cheltenham and Lechdale. Most of the population of Britain is clustered into the Surviving Towns, where the ruling families and Faith Houses keep order through local militias. The Council of the Faith Houses ensure that anyone who has mutations is thrown out to be or, in the case of people like Albert Browne, shipped off to a mental hospital/prison combo known as Stonemoor where they're experimented upon. There are no real counterparts to Native Americans in the setting (unless you count the cannibalistic entities known as the Tainted, but those seem to be closer to Wendigos or Skinwalkers than actual Natives), and there are mentions of raids by the people of Wales who could maybe be analogous to Mexican bandits, although it's not really explored as much as it probably could've been. Unlike the Wild West of old, where the world was slowly urbanised, the state of the world in the book is pretty much the opposite. It is mentioned at times that the wilds are slowly encroaching on the more civilised world, with attacks by the Tainted and the mutated megafauna increasing, although I didn't really get that impression from the book, and it's only really brought up in the later half of the story. Overall, the book makes a reasonable attempt to transplant Wild West themes and ideas into the British Midlands, but it does have to work at it a bit.
In conclusion, this is a decent attempt at telling a post-apocalyptic Western-style story with two well-written protagonists and some dark humour thrown into the mix.
Similar books by other authors:
Lockwood and Co - the author's highly successful previous series.
Will Gallows and the Thunder Dragon's Roar by Derek Keilty – another fantasy reworking of the Wild West intended for younger readers.
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