The Nightland Express: A solid YA fantasy

The Nightland Express by J.M. LeeThe Nightland Express by J.M. Lee 

The Nightland Express by J.M. Lee science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Nightland Express (2022) by J.M. Lee is a solid YA fantasy that has its moments but also doesn’t quite reach its full potential due to several issues. It also suffers a bit perhaps from trying to take on too much, where a more streamlined approach might have allowed for more full development of its issues as well as a more tense narrative. A minor spoiler follows, one revealed quite early in the book and one whose “reveal” doesn’t really impact the reading experience, but stop here if you’re a purist on that sort of thing.

The novel is set in 1860 America, which is also not uncoincidentally the year the Pony Express began (and not long before it ended but that’s a different tale). Our two alternating POVs — Ben and Jessamine (who goes by Jesse) — each show up in St. Joseph, Missouri in response to a recruitment poster looking for a pair of riders (“orphans preferred”) for a “Pony Express Special Assignment. Each has their own reason for trying to become an Express rider: Jesse is seeking the father who abandoned her and her now-pregnant sister to drag him back and own up to his responsibilities, while Ben is a runaway slave. Both also have secreted selves. Ben is not only a runaway; he’s also passing as white and is gay. Jesse, meanwhile, is disguising herself as a boy, outwardly in order to be chosen for the Express, but really because she is uncertain as to her own identity, though she leans toward thinking of herself as a boy in a girl’s body.

The fantasy element comes in because the two are hired not for the Pony Express but the titular Nightland Express in order to escort a fae across the country, all while being hunted by other fae as they try to complete a mission that has the potential to change the world.

J.M. Lee

J.M. Lee

As you can see, there’s a lot going on here, and, as noted in the intro, I’d argue perhaps a bit too much. Jesse’s slow coming-to-understand-herself is probably the most developed element and the most moving, and there’s a nice subtlety to how the pronouns slowly change as the book progresses. Jesse’s personal identity dilemma, on the other hand, is more amorphous and doesn’t really impact the story, while the runaway slave aspect doesn’t always feel wholly realized and also feels abruptly dropped. Meanwhile, there’s a single scene involving a Native American, and bit of a riff on greed/capitalism, and a bit on Manifest Destiny, but all of them feel more like “bits” than integrated organically into the plot. The fae element is interesting, and works as a nice metaphor for a sort of “invisible world” the two main characters inhabit (the face the show the world and their own interior self) but gets somewhat dumped on the reader all in the latter quarter or third of the book and so both distracts from other aspects and feels a bit ragged and rushed.

The relationship between Ben and Jesse starts off nicely prickly and guarded, and for a while I enjoyed their slow moving toward one another, but similar to the above issues, where they end up feels rushed and unearned. Even their movement across the country, which is aided by magical gates, falls into that same problem, as we get a few landmarks namechecked (Chimney Rock, Fort Laramie) but the setting — that frontier world of the late 1800s — never comes alive, which seems a waste.

That said, my guess is younger readers will be a bit less bothered by some of the issues I mentioned. And the book does move apace (perhaps a little too much) —always a plus for YA — and the writing itself is smoothly fluid and clear. Given that, I’d be interested in seeing what Lee offers next.

Published November 2022. When bright, brash Jessamine Murphy finds a recruitment poster for the Pony Express, her tomboy heart skips a beat: not only for adventure, but for the chance to track down her wayward father in California. Eager to reunite her fractured family, Jessamine cuts her hair, dons a pair of trousers, and steps into the world as Jesse. With a bit of trickery, Jesse wins a special assignment — as does Ben Foley, a quiet but determined boy who guards secrets as closely as Jesse does. The two are to transport unusual cargo along an unusual route: the Nightland Express. They ride west together, one excitedly navigating the world as a boy, the other passing as white to escape the monsters from his past. Ben and Jesse soon realize their assignment is special in more ways than one: their tireless horses cover ground faster than should be possible, and inhuman creatures watch their journey from the darkness. The Nightland Express is more than a mail route — it traces the border between the mortal world and a vibrant, magical land just beyond. As both realms hover on the precipice of disaster, Jesse and Ben must learn to fully trust one another before a catastrophic rift separates the two worlds — and the two riders — forever.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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One comment

  1. I love this idea, and I have a young teen on my gift list it might be perfect for.

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