They buried the girl next to her mother on the first warm day of spring.
So begins Alex Grecian’s Red Rabbit, and it’s a first line that captures much of what the story is about. It’s a story about family, lost and found, and it’s a story about death, which comes quickly and not always fairly.
The girl in question died of the pox, and her father, Arthur King, believes the witch Sadie Grace is to blame. But no one in their town of Riddle, Kansas, dares confront her, not when everyone knows she has her hooks in all the land. So he sets a bounty—enough, he hopes, to tempt people from farther away, people who can come to their small town and kill the witch where its residents can’t.
It works. Old Tom is an experienced witch-master (so he claims), heading north to Burden County to claim the bounty. But soon enough his quest becomes a posse, when he stumbles across Rabbit, a mute, enigmatic child with her home burned down. When she’s hurt, and Tom has to come to town to seek help, he’s joined by Ned Hemingway and Moses Burke, two aimless cowboys and veterans of the Civil War with a bit of medical knowledge between them. And when he attempts to use a fresh grave to cast a curse on the witch to the north, it turns our he’s using the grave of Rose Nettles’s husband. A widow now, with nothing left for her at the farm and no way to maintain it, she decides to throw her lot in with them.
But the Kansas of Red Rabbit is a dangerous place. On the road, they encounter a forest which has become a nexus of despair, a cheap wooden fence surrounding it no obstacle to the poor souls lured there; ghosts that crowd around their graves, tethered to the spot but unable to move on; and ancient creatures that walk the fields, some operating under their own inscrutable rules, others born of Hell itself to wreak bloody carnage. And even as these perils mount, so too do the promises drawing them north to Riddle: the bounty, a telegram, a train.
Grecian could have made it a simple story: a ragtag group of heroes, pure of heart, off to kill an evil witch. But he doesn’t. Red Rabbit is a much more complex story than that, filled with imperfect characters. Some are more good than bad, some are more bad than good, but where Grecian succeeds is in making them all recognizable, in sketching out the nuanced humanity behind every character. Rose is clever and caring, joining the group mostly because she worries about the safety of Rabbit, but to the others, she comes across as perplexing and cold. Tom is the de facto leader, the most knowledgeable of any of them about magic, but he’s also casually bigoted and more than a little selfish. And perhaps even the witch Sadie Grace isn’t as bad as King believes…
Throughout the course of the novel, we occupy the point-of-view of more than thirty characters, from our protagonists to the saloon barkeep of Riddle to a hungry, scrawny fox. In doing so, the world feels more real, more populated—and when they die, that too feels more visceral than if we’d never been inside their heads. For Red Rabbit, as the name might suggest, is a bloody book, where death can (and does) come just as easily through a hunting rifle as a hex.
In many ways, it’s reminiscent of The Escapement by Lavie Tidhar—another fantasy Western that mixes carriages and guns with magic and ghosts, although the world of the Escapement is less grounded and more dreamlike than the dusty windswept Kansas of Red Rabbit. Both, too, are stories about family, and trying to hold onto it even with death so omnipresent.
It’s Rabbit, the strange silent child, who keeps the protagonists together. Tom and Ned and Moses all want to keep her safe and well, and Rose, who was always frightened of the perils of childbirth, finds herself reading to Rabbit and trying to break her out of her shell. But it’s not just them—almost every character whose POV we see is motivated in some way by those familial relationships. King hates Sadie Grace for depriving him of his family, while Sarah Cookson is indebted to Sadie for providing her with a fertilization totem that allowed her to have a family. Sibling relationships are represented, too, in Charlie Gamble, the deputy sheriff of a small Texas county likewise drawn into the witch hunt up north and the people it draws, who’s content to do what his older brother tells him and fearful of his disapproval.
Grecian’s style is fast-paced, but it’s always clear—his characters aren’t given to flowery language even in this world of magic. So when they encounter something they genuinely can’t explain, like devils and cannibalistic towns, it’s all the more unnerving.
Red Rabbit is the rare, brilliant book that manages to balance such nuanced characters with its wide-ranging narrative. I started reading it late at night and found I didn’t want to put it down, and it’s quickly jumped to the top of my list for best books of the year.
Red Rabbit is published by Nightfire.
Read a short story set in the same world as Red Rabbit.
Charles Bonkowsky is the president of Columbia University’s Science Fiction Society and loves talking to people about books.