by Tonia Brown
Nineteenth-century America was dangerous enough I'm sure without any zombies roaming the countryside. So with Tonia Brown's horror/western novel, Skin Trade, the bleak and foreboding landscape upon which it is set came as no surprise. That's not to say, however, the book didn't offer a bevy of twists and turns.
Centered on a young girl named Samantha Martin, Skin Trade opens up on a workhouse employing young men and boys toiling under a hot sun and grueling taskmaster, bordering the Badlands to the west. The Badlands carry endlessly westward, overrun with the walking dead following some alluded-to cataclysm. Girls are a rare commodity in this backdrop, and as such Samantha disguises herself as a boy to earn her way toiling in the fields and avoiding monstrous advances from the boys and men that surround her. Through her hardships, she is befriended by a boy named Stinky Pete, as the two share in their outcast roles among the other boys. A bit of a Tom and Huck vibe there.
Then, Sam and Pete are offered an escape when a man by the name of Boudreaux comes by the fields and recruits them as assistants while he hunts and traps in the Badlands. Dangerous work, but promising in pay. Hopes are quickly dashed though, when Boudreaux's trade and methods and brought to bear, and Sam finds herself in even more danger than what the zombies offer. I mean, how well are things going to end for you when your new job is killing and skinning the undead for their pelts?
Skin Trade comes with a discretionary warning to start out, as Tonia warns prospective readers that the nineteenth century was a little less progressive towards those of the female persuasion. Given my surface-level grasp on history, I was expecting this horror novel to offer some downright repellant scenes inflicted upon Sam. However, the story is grim more in its insinuation than anything else. Oh, when the action scenes occur, they are certainly gruesome and gripping, but nothing feels exploitative.
Tonia Brown also possesses a keen grasp of her characters, with their mindsets and motivations playing out pitch perfectly. There were moments where I thought Sam might turn into a damsel, especially towards the end when it looked like she'd need to rely on someone else for her own attempts at escape, but if Sam is a princess, she is of the self-saving kind. Heck, it's not like the world she lives in has any real knights coming to her rescue.
If you are a fan of weird westerns, you should check this one out. Zombie nuts will have plenty to enjoy, with a really good story that doesn't occupy itself too greatly on shambling hordes as its source of horror. Fainthearted folks may want to steer clear, though I think you'd be missing out. It seems each story Tonia Brown gets a little bit better than the last, so I'll be looking forward to reading more of her work down the line.