Earlier this year we had the mash-up of Cowboys & Aliens (plus James Bond and Indiana Jones) which, whether you liked it or not, was a killer idea. Now consider taking cowboys and aliens and adding in dinosaurs. (Yes, dinosaurs!!!) Intrigued by all the potential awesomeness? Well then you need to take a look at Rex Riders where J.P Carlson has done exactly that as well as giving readers some classic western writing and good guys and bad guys and horses and stage coaches and a rampaging triceratops.
Come on, you know you're curious!
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Fourteen-year old protagonist Zeke Calhoun lives with his uncle on his small southern Texas ranch. The region is dominated by the wealthy Dante D'Allesandro who basically controls the nearby town and surrounding countryside through his wealth and the heavy hand of his cruel ranch foreman. Zeke gets into trouble with Dante's goons over the recovery of a valuable horse and from there things would seem to go the traditional route of good guys suffer and bad guys gloat (as cool as Zeke's uncle is, he's no Chuck Connors, unfortunately) but the triceratops then makes his auspicious arrival and Zeke ends up saving a very nice girl from certain death and the girl happens to be Dante's newly arrived niece and, well, lots of stuff happens to keep the bad guys on their toes and the good guys in the running to win this one.
I haven't forgotten about the aliens, (and haven't even mentioned the trained t-rex) but basically you have a parallel earth and portal type story going on here (it's kind of Land of Lostish but not goofy). All of it comes together in the sort of classic page-turning style that made westerns all the rage decades ago. In fact I got a serious retro feeling the entire time I was reading Red Riders (the nice drawings at each chapter heading from Jim Calafiore don't hurt). If I didn't think it would hurt the book's chances I'd say it was good clean fun but I mean that in the most "teens kick butt and have big adventures with dinosaurs and cowboys" kind of way. Rex Riders is unexpected; it's plot driven, it's lots of edge of the seat entertainment and it is none of the dramarama that one tends to think must be part and parcel of teen reading. (Not that there's anything wrong with dramarama but sometimes you just want to see an alien riding to rescue on a t-rex.)
Who's the best audience for Rex Riders? It has reluctant reader written all over it, especially boys who don't want any soap opera with their stories. It's the book that should be sold at every rodeo across America. (Do bookstores set up at rodeos? If not, they should.) Carlson has written something that manages to be both straightforward and sensational; it's the best sort of blend of Americana and science fiction for the ten and up crowd. The only thing I wish it had was more of Calafiore's illustrations because this would make a killer illustrated novel ala Brian Selznick. But that's a tiny quibble and doesn't affect at all the book's appeal.