Book Review: Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey

Riders of the Purple SageRiders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

No one would ever publish this book, were it written today. It’s full of purple prose and repetition, heaving bosoms and moustache-twirling bad guys, and it’s considered a foundational book of the Western genre, and established maybe 75% of the tropes, but despite that, it’s still more of a romance or a gothic chamber mystery than a Western as we would understand the genre.

Which says more to me about the failings of the modern publishing industry than it does about this book. You want to talk about “formulaic writing?” Be a writer and go to a critique group. “I counted 17 adverbs in this chapter, that’s 16 too many.” “You didn’t start in media res. No one wants to waste time reading your carefully-established character backstory upon which all their decisions as people hinge.” “What? You used a dialogue tag other than ‘said’? How dare you try to be creative! Minus 150 points to Ravenclaw! And why did you use a dialogue tag at all? It would be better if the dialogue were relayed without any emotion or context and the reader had to guess who was speaking.”

This book would fail absolutely every single one of these tests, except for the in media res part. A modern publisher would probably burn it.

Except that it’s been republished about a million times, and is considered a classic, because it works.

That’s it. It just does, never mind what arbitrary test you might want to put against it (which it would fail.)

There are two interweaving storylines, and you’d be hard pressed to say who the “protagonist” is. Clearly we’re meant to follow Lassiter, the archetypical black-clad lone gunman, but there are three other major characters and you could follow any one of them and enjoy the story, much in the same way that Patrick O’Brian might have been writing the story of Jack Aubrey, or the story of Stephen Maturin. We spend more time in Jane’s POV than anyone else’s.

The story is bound together by two factors: the protagonists’ relationship with the antagonists, and their relationship with the landscape; which, like in any good Western, is as much a character as any person in the book.

I’d urge the modern reader to look past the typical melodramatic early 20th century pulp novel language. If you do, you can see the storyline is complex, the characters are deep and complicated (despite some built-in early 20th century assumptions, but they’re not the ones you would expect,) and all of them have dynamic development arcs, which is not something “pulp fiction” has a reputation for.

Thoroughly enjoyed this book, despite its warts, and I expect I’ll come back to it again.

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