- The Good: Texas western with paranormal leanings
- The Bad: Too short; would have enjoyed more development from Hank and Charlie
- The Literary: Alternating POV; historical backdrop of the Great Galveston Hurricane
Floyd Betts returns to his hometown after many years to attend his father’s funeral and quickly remembers why he left in the first place. Before he leaves, he finds two orphaned and starving children and decides to bring them back to his home in Galveston, Texas. Nellie, the precocious sister, is a witch, and her brother Hank, a sharpshooter with his deceased father’s colt revolver.
Traveling through Texas backcountry in 1900, Floyd, Nellie, and Hank happen upon traveling salesman Professor Finn, his henchman Kentucky Jim, and a fish-man they are trying to capture. Nellie understands that they mean to beat and chain the fish-man to put him on display for profit and soon learns she can also communicate empathically with the fish-man, an intelligent and sentient creature. They fight off the charlatans, escape, and decide to bring newly named Charlie Fish to Galveston with them in the hopes his family might find him by way of the ocean.
Mix a pulpy western with southern gothic fantasy and you’ve got this addictive and satisfying short novel in the vein of True Grit and The Shape of Water. I love both those movies. The tropes of hardened men making it in a rough world, found family, and exploitation of those who are just a little different are just as effective here in The Legend of Charlie Fish.
Rountree uses alternating POV chapters between Floyd and Nellie to bring in backstory that reveals the hardships these characters have already faced, which helps to make the characters immediately sympathetic. I initially thought Nellie’s perspective is there to allow explanation of her witchy powers and “whisper talk”, but I soon came to realize that she’s as much a protagonist as Floyd, maybe even more so.
In addition to the chapter structure, the stakes and anticipation steadily rise as the little family is pursued by Finn and Jim, and Galveston city is under threat from a storm that only gets worse and worse. Their story is captivating enough, but add in the backdrop of the Great Storm, the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history, and you’ve got a real nail-biter. While I really appreciate the technical aspects and construction of the story, what I love most of all is how well it reads, how fast I care about the characters, and how the story sweeps me away.
Highly recommended for my fellow Texans, but also for western and literary fantasy fans!