­CamCat. Nov. 2023. 304p. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9780744306941.
Gr 9 Up–When the violent and charismatic August Gaines rides into the little town of Bladestay, CO, to flush out his enemy, Theodora Creed, 17, is being held in a jail cell for stabbing a local boy. Her newly shorn hair, criminal status, and razor-sharp mind allow her to pose as a boy and infiltrate August’s crew, the only solution she sees to save her terrorized town. Truth and loyalty become slippery concepts as they track Theo’s family and neighbors through the Colorado wilderness. Johnson’s debut novel is breathtaking in both prose and pace, and the violence and brutality is offset by (although often hand-in-hand with) the familial relationship between August and his men. A blood-soaked but kindhearted member of the crew throws Theo off her game, as does the uneasy but undeniable kinship that builds between her and August. The western trope of good vs. evil is thrown out the window early on, and watching Theo try to keep her footing as she parses out ideas about loyalty, vengeance, family, and survival is a wild ride. Johnson presents a cast of complex and broken characters and asks thought-provoking questions about how motivation and guilt are weighed in the fine line between right and wrong.
VERDICT A brutal, suspenseful, and surprising read with an unforgettable protagonist.

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